White Teeth Summary
The novel presents the inter-related stories of three families in London during the waning years of the 20th century. The imminent specter of Y2K, as people wondered if the world’s computers would collectively fail at the moment the new millennium began, provides a specific temporal context. For two families, the fathers—Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal—are long-time friends, and many of the interactions occur between them, their wives, and their children. In addition, through the children’s connections, the third family, the Chalfens, become entangled in the others’ lives.
Much of the novel is concerned with Archie and Samal, who had become friends through military service together during World War II, as they move into middle age and remarry. Archie, who is a white English man, recovers from a bungled suicide attempt to meet and marry a Jamaican woman, Clara. Samad, originally from Bangladesh (when still part of British-controlled India), is married to Alsana, also from Bangladesh but much younger.
As the stories unfold, the emphasis switches to their children. Archie’s daughter Irie loves Samad’s son Millat, who is struggling to understand his Muslim heritage. When the two get in hot water together, their classmate Josh Chalfen steps up to tutor them; Josh is actually more motivated by his crush on Irie. This scenario also provides the entry into the work of Marcus, Josh’s father, which is concerned with the computer technology that should enable humankind to survive Y2K.
As the relationship between Irie and Josh develops, she also becomes more invested in her Jamaican heritage on her mother’s side, and she and Josh go to Jamaica. Prior to this, however, Irie had consummated her love for Millat but also slept with his twin brother, Magic, so the father of her daughter might have been either man.
White Teeth is a complex and multilayered novel, with a wide cast of characters and a twisting plot ranging over many years and several continents. The story follows the fortunes of two best friends, World War II buddies Archie Jones, a white working-class man married for the second time to the much younger Clara, a Jamaican woman, and Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi who works at an Indian restaurant in London and marries the much younger Alsana. Naturally enough, their children Irie Jones and the twin Iqbal brothers, Magid and Millat, are friends in multicultural present-day north London. Samad, concerned that his boys are losing their culture, sends one brother, Magid, home to be raised by relatives in Chittagong. Irie and Millat, caught smoking marijuana in the schoolyard, agree to be tutored by classmate Joshua Chalfen in order to avoid harsher consequences. The Jewish-Catholic-atheist Chalfens are a stereotypical white liberal family, delighted to welcome such multicultural diversity into their home. Irie Jones has an unrequited desire for Millat; Joshua Chalfen has an unrequited love for Irie.
Marcus Chalfen is a genetic engineer who is working on a project called FutureMouse. Every event in FutureMouse’s life will be programmed and predictable; the mouse is to live for exactly seven years, from 1993 to December 31, 1999, the eve of the new millennium. The many threads of the novel come together at an event where FutureMouse will be introduced to the public. All the living characters are present: the senior Joneses and Iqbals; Irie, who has both embraced her Jamaican ancestry by returning to live with her grandmother and decided to go to university under the influence of the educated Chalfens; Joshua Chalfen, who has defied his father by becoming an animal rights activist; Magid, who has become Marcus’s protégé and publicist; and Millat, whose militant Islamic group is determined to disrupt the event. Coincidences abound, chance meetings occur, all attempts to control outcomes fail, and the event ends in chaos and FutureMouse escapes.
The novel ends with a snapshot of the future: On December 31, 1999, Irie Jones and...
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