- White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 462 pp, £12.99, January 2000, ISBN 0 241 13997 X
A woman at the counter of the newsagent I was in was charged £25. I looked over to see what she could have been buying. Twenty Benson and Hedges, a packet of crisps – and a clutch of lottery tickets. Not cheap. I picture her going into the same shop Saturday after Saturday, buying more and more tickets each time. At first it was just one: then it was two, four the week after, six the next – until it was twenty, and her chances of winning were multiplied twenty times. The trick with gambling is this: each time you lose, you raise the stake you put in so that when you win you cover all your losses. There’s a catch: to be sure of winning you need to have a limitless supply of money. And you need to have enough time. If you buy twenty lottery tickets a week from the age of 18 you will, on average, be 700,000 years old before you win the jackpot, and if Richard Branson succeeds in his bid for the People’s Lottery you’re more likely to be a million.
The newsagent in question is on Willesden High Road, where every shop that isn’t a newsagent is a takeaway. The streets of low-rise housing go on for ever and the main arteries are well supplied with buses. The people are from everywhere. At Willesden Green there’s a shopping centre and a library. Willesden belongs to a part of the city that doesn’t recognise a centre, where everything you need is in easy reach and you can move from suburb to suburb without ever seeing the London you read about in the guidebooks. There are estates and run-down stretches, but there are also trees, and it’s fashionable, too: it lies just beyond Kilburn, and in the all-important hierarchy of London postcodes it has the respectable-sounding label of NW2; there are houses that go for £800,000. It’s where White Teeth is set.
Zadie Smith won a kind of lottery: £250,000 in a two-book deal, and there’s a £5 million BBC adaptation on the way. She was one of the deserving – just a step away from the prize-winning bus-driver novelist – only 23, half-Jamaican, half-English, parents divorced, resident of Willesden. So she did go to Cambridge, but then there’s always a catch. Salman Rushdie called White Teeth ‘fizzing’ – and it’s been called many similar things since – which may sound a little misplaced with its hint of champagne, but it captures something of the boldness and variety of a novel that is 462 pages long and peopled with a generous selection of Londoners, immigrant and otherwise, who are followed over two or three generations as they mix and marry, argue and succeed. It’s been made to stand, particularly in America, for a multicultural Britain, one thing about this country that’s not to do with Heritage.
The book has at its centre Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi living in Willesden, the great-grandson of Mangal Pande, who may or may not have been the catalyst for the Sepoy Rebellion, and whose nemesis, General Havelock, is commemorated by a statue in Trafalgar Square; and Archie Jones, resident of Willesden hailing from Brighton, twice married, who once came joint thirteenth in an Olympic cycling event. They are bosom pals, meeting regularly in O’Connell’s Pool House, where there are no pool-tables and the owner and sole employee, Abdul-Mickey (whose relatives are all called Abdul with an Irish or English name tagged on), refuses to serve pork (except on one notable occasion), and reads handbooks on how to look after the customers, of which there appear to be only four. Archie and Samad were brought together by the war, and their particular war involved driving a tank around defeated towns, until it broke down and they were left without support in a Bulgarian village. Samad is Archie’s teacher, his guru, his misguided conscience, and he lectures him on great-grandfathers and ‘the East’ and Englishness – his moment of greatest inspiration came in the Bulgarian village as they waited, unaware that the war was over, fuelled by morphine collected from abandoned medicine chests.