The year formerly known as Y2K began with euphoria and not — as many had predicted — a computer crash. As subsequent events proved, a different sort of crash was just around the corner. The dot.com bubble wouldn’t burst for a few more weeks — the NASDAQ reached its all time high on March 10, 2000 — so the fin de siècle sense of good times and prosperity could hang around for a bit longer. Even the publishing industry felt the exuberance, irrational or otherwise, as it anticipated the first novel by a young sensation scheduled to appear on January 27, 2000. Back in 1997, at age 21, Zadie Smith had received a £250,000 advance for White Teeth and an even more distant second novel, although she was still a student and an unproven author. Now the reading public would see what the fuss was all about.
Born Sadie Smith in North London in 1975 — she eventually opted for Zadie because it sounded more exotic — the future writer was the child of a British father and a Jamaican mother who divorced when she was fifteen. Intersecting (and often conflicting) ethnic and religious currents would become Smith’s trademark, and in her story-telling she rarely restricts herself to a two-car cultural crash. White Teeth deals with Bangladeshi, Afro-Caribbean, British and Muslim elements the same way a world fusion bandleader might mix a salsa beat with European and jazz ingredients to create some provocative new sound. For extra spice, Smith adds in Jewish, Catholic, Jehovah's Witnesses and several other perspectives in her literary gumbo.
You might be tempted to call White Teeth the ultimate melting pot novel — except for the fact that there is more simmering than melting here. The skeptical and cynical, yet also humorous and life-affirming tone of this novel permeates every page. This is a book where, when the doorbell rings, an acceptable greeting is “Encyclopedias or God?” Friends and families here have endearing ways of addressing one another. When Bangladeshi Alsana deals with her outspoken and Westernized relative Neena, she calls her “Niece of Shame.” Another typical salutation might be: “Get your fat Ganesh Hindu backside up there Elephant Boy and bring some of that mashed pigeon stuff with you.” Perhaps you associate the post-colonial novel with a sober and respectful tone, but much of White Teeth’s appeal stems from its unwillingness to play that game.