Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In brief, this first novel by Zadie Smith initiates many of the topics and themes Smith returns to in other fiction and in her non-fiction. White Teeth is situated within England, and more specifically London's, pluralism in a post-Colonial, post WW2 era. The novel straddles both the distinctions that come with class and race and ethnicity but also the universally human need for dignity and companionship, or more simply understanding.
Smith has a distinct writing style, perhaps born of her own immersion in multiple English communities (government housing and Cambridge, Jamaican mother and English father, keen and critical observer as well as creative writer). There's a whimsy in the plotting as well as the expression with which she tells this story. She seems bemused not only by the plot but with the words and sentences she can use to convey it. A very "literary" piece of writing, this novel, like all of Smith's works, has an uncanny ability to ventriloquize the dialects of her characters and so bring them and their neighborhood to life.
Neither entirely comic nor tragic, the novel offers what James Wood described as "hysterical realism," by which he meant its abundance of details and characters, interwoven into a tight knot. A more generous critique might suggest that Smith is using the novel to create a microcosm of a few aspects of the world she recognizes as distinctly modern London life.