65. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
My last book of 2009, a Hannukah gift from my father, was an interesting end note. While the tooth theme was a bit too understated to be part of the title, in my opinion, Zadie Smith does an admirable job of weaving together an interconnected story of three families in London in the 1980s and 1990s.
Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal are old buddies who served together in World War II. Both marry (in Archie's case, re-marry) young wives who provide them with children growing up in the strange new age. Samad, a Bangladeshi Muslim, agonizes as he sees his twin sons, Magid and Millat, moving away from the tradition that he so idealizes and fails to adhere to in his own life. His wife Alsana is a character, though she is young, she is defiant and opinionated, prejudiced against both Samad's idealization of tradition and her sons' rejection and permutations of it. Archie's wife Clara is from Jamaica, raised a Jehovah's Witness, from which she rebelled. Their daughter Irie is a beautifully average character, with her father's equanimity, but some of her mother's spirit and desire to improve in the world. The third family, given less attention, are the Chalfens. Millat and Irie are caught smoking with their son Joshua and sentenced to be tutored by Joshua's parents. The Chalfens are upper middle class, intelligent, smug, interfering. They're likable and infuriating at the same time, as they try to improve Irie and Millat and wind up frustrating everyone.
The narrative voice in this book was one of the best parts. There are reflections on the characters' thoughts and actions, one particularly stuck with me, dealing with the real significance of tradition. Why is it so important? Shouldn't we question rather than obey blindly? Or do we need to learn to submit, as we must in the end submit and surrender our lives? Smith seems to conclude that life is naturally chaotic and cyclic, a fact that must be embraced. She also deals with the mindset of young second generation Muslims and other Asian immigrants, and why "radicalization occurs" as she would put it. She deals with the problems of a fractured group identity, a trend I expect to see more of in years to come.
Novels like this are good examples of why literature is still important. We're still using books to work out large social and cultural problems.