Zadie Smith Extended Criticism - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Zadie Smith 1976-

British novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Smith's career through 2001.

Widely touted as a new voice in English literature, Smith burst onto the scene in 2000 with the publication of her first novel, White Teeth. Her debut effort centers on multigenerational relationships between two contemporary London families with disparate racial, economic, and religious origins. Suffused with humor and irony, the novel also illuminates the inherent difficulties of preserving ethnic identities and cultural heritages in an increasingly multicultural society. Astonished by the wisdom beyond the author's young age found in the book, most critics have generally acclaimed White Teeth with enthusiasm, drawing comparisons to a range of writers from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie.

Biographical Information

The daughter of an English father and a much younger Jamaican mother, Smith was born in 1976 at Hampstead, England, and grew up in Willesden Green, a multiethnic neighborhood northwest of London. Her parents divorced when Smith was fourteen-years-old. She studied English literature at King's College, Cambridge, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1998. While there, Smith regularly contributed short stories to the May Anthologies, an annual compilation of prose and poetry written by Cambridge and Oxford undergraduates, including one that later became the basis for White Teeth. That story caught the eye of a literary agent, who wanted to discuss with its author the possibility of expanding the story into a full-length novel. Consequently, the agent secured for Smith a rumored £250,000 (approximately $400,000) advance—an extraordinary sum for a first-time author and an incomplete manuscript that contained only a plot synopsis and two chapters. White Teeth subsequently won numerous prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers' First Book Award, and the prestigious Whitbread First Novel Award. After an international publicity tour, Smith returned to her mother's home at Willesden and began writing a second novel about autographs and mystical religions. The Autograph Man is slated for publication in 2002.

Major Works

Addressing racial, cultural, and generational issues with wit and irony, White Teeth revolves around the relationship between the families of two men, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, who bonded during the closing days of World War II as the only survivors of a tank mishap in Bulgaria. In an extended flashback, readers learn that immediately after the war ended, Archie took a job at a print shop and married Ophelia, an Italian woman whom he met during the war. Samad returned to his native Bengal (the Indian province later known as East Pakistan and today as Bangladesh) and went to college. Nearly thirty years have passed before the friendship between the blue-collar Briton and the educated Muslim resumes, and the narrative begins. When Samad immigrates to England with his new domineering wife, Alsana Begum, he settles in Willesden where he successfully locates his old war buddy, who has recently divorced Ophelia and married nineteen-year-old Clara Bowden, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. Within a year of the reunion, the two couples and their children—Archie's daughter Irie and Samad's twin sons Magid and Millat—become friendly. The children's relationships and stories comprise the latter part of White Teeth, which principally focuses on varying degrees of displacement experienced by the multicultural characters populating the racially and ethnically diverse post-imperial London neighborhood. For instance, Samad strives to retain his self-identity as a Muslim Bengali in a culture vastly different from his homeland. Forced to earn a living as a waiter at a curry restaurant, Samad decides to send his sons to Bangladesh for a proper Muslim education, but since he can only afford the expenses for one, he sends Magid. Meanwhile, the biracial Irie matures into a full-figured, curly-haired adolescent, who nurtures a crush on Millat and struggles for acceptance in a culture that privileges thin, Caucasian blondes. The confused Millat, in turn, cultivates a fascination with Islamic fundamentalism that propels him toward terrorist activities. Further complicating matters, Magid returns to England thoroughly Anglicized, which greatly distresses his father. Magid eventually takes a position at a genetic engineering firm that is designing a creature called FutureMouse, which is scheduled to debut on New Year's Eve 1992, when the novel's climactic event occurs. By its end, White Teeth exposes the dangers of labeling others and illustrates the universal striving to maintain self-identity in pluralistic contemporary society, despite cultural heritage or ethnic origin.

Critical Reception

Critics have lauded White Teeth for its astute take on social cooperation between various races, classes, and religions, with most critics deeming its insights beyond the age of its author. Smith's novel has not only been stylistically and thematically compared to Rushdie's narratives, but Rushdie himself has also recommended the novel in a quote on the back cover of its first edition, claiming that the comedy “fizzes up” through its characters. Many reviewers have also expressed surprise at the novel's self-assured tone and the depth of characterizations—traits contrary to expectations for a first-time novelist. Similarly, most commentators have applauded Smith's ear for dialogue, her darkly ironic wit, and her unusually mature understanding of social interactions. The majority of critics also have enjoyed the diversity of characters and their various ethnicities and well-developed perspectives. Although some have likened the turns and coincidental occurrences of the plot to Dickensian narratives, other reviewers have asserted that there are too many characters, and that their behavior and the coincidental nature of their experiences test the limits of fictional realism, engaging the conventions of magic realism. However, critics have generally been impressed by the size and scope of White Teeth and eagerly anticipate Smith's future literary efforts.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Zadie Smith and Stephanie Merritt (interview date 16 January 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Zadie, and Stephanie Merritt. “Zadie Smith.” London Observer (16 January 2000): 12.

[In the following interview, Smith and Merritt discuss race, the success of White Teeth, and Smith's future works.]

The hype began in the autumn of 1997. Zadie Smith was 21 and just down from Cambridge when her first novel was sold on a mere 80 pages for an advance rumoured to be in the region of Pounds 250,000.

Nearly two-and-a-half years on, White Teeth is finished, at a weighty 462 pages, and about to be published. It is a broad, teeming, comic novel of multiracial Britain viewed through the lives of two families, and has already...

(The entire section is 1422 words.)

Zadie Smith and Christina Patterson (interview date 22 January 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Zadie, and Christina Patterson. “Zadie Smith—A Willesden Ring of Confidence.” Independent (22 January 2000): 9.

[In the following interview, Smith discusses White Teeth and its reception by the public and critics.]

Zadie Smith was in the middle of her finals when she started to write the story that became White Teeth. It went on to win her a two-book deal of a rumoured quarter of a million—and she got a first. She's beautiful, too. The figure that strides into Silver Moon bookshop 15 minutes late is elegantly hip in a tight, long black skirt, warm jacket, Chris Evans specs and fur-lined hat with flaps, which she keeps on even in the...

(The entire section is 1354 words.)

Zenga Longmore (review date 29 January 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Longmore, Zenga. “Fairy-Sweary-Land.” Spectator 284, no. 8947 (29 January 2000): 47.

[In the following negative review, Longmore argues that the characters in White Teeth are not only unrealistically profound and introspective, but also unusually profane.]

Zadie Smith is a very impressive woman. She is divinely pretty, 24 years old, has a double first in English at Cambridge, and if that's not enough, she has written a hetty great book on multicultural north west London [White Teeth] for which she was paid a staggeringly large commission. Sadly, the book lacks the brilliance of its author.

Reader, beware, you are about to...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

Mark Rozzo (review date 7 May 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rozzo, Mark. “Who's English Now?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 May 2000): 10–11.

[In the following review, Rozzo outlines the major themes in White Teeth, complimenting its style, symbolism, and wit.]

Check out a map of London: The city seems to sprawl endlessly, its high streets spoking this way and that amid a dizzying patchwork of interlocking hamlets and maddeningly meandering lanes. Insatiable curiosity and the desire to make sense of it draws the eye back again and again, retracing routes, discovering patterns, seeing new colors.

In Zadie Smith's dazzling intergenerational first novel, White Teeth, the 24-year-old...

(The entire section is 1390 words.)

Zadie Smith and Bob Graham (interview date 13 June 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Zadie, and Bob Graham. “Fame Gives Writer Lots to Chew On.” San Francisco Chronicle (13 June 2000): E1.

[In the following interview, Smith discusses the tone of White Teeth, the effects of fame, and the differences between English and American attitudes on race and class.]

Everybody starts with white teeth. They might turn yellow, fall out or get knocked out, but that's what everybody starts with, or used to. Now everybody must be starting with White Teeth. It's the international blockbuster novel by Zadie Smith.

Everybody starts with white teeth? Is that what the title means?

“Your guess is as good...

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Zadie Smith and Lynell George (interview date 26 June 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Zadie, and Lynell George. “Author Purposeful with Prose, Fidgety with Fame.” Los Angeles Times (26 June 2000): E1.

[In the following interview, Smith discusses the commercial and critical success of White Teeth, and addresses the common misconception that her novel is about race.]

Staring at the face of it, Zadie Smith is none too pleased.

She's not thrilled about all this hurtling back and forth across time, ocean and continents. Nor was she overjoyed to learn that she can't smoke in her Beverly Hills hotel room—or anywhere for that matter in this too sunny and strange take on a metropolis.

Nor is she...

(The entire section is 1820 words.)

James Wood (review date 24 July 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wood, James. “Human, All Too Inhuman.” New Republic 223, no. 4 (24 July 2000): 41–45.

[In the following review, Wood compares the verisimilitude of White Teeth with the standards for realism of contemporary fiction.]


A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each...

(The entire section is 5450 words.)

Anita Mathias (review date 11 August 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mathias, Anita. “View from the Margins.” Commonweal 127, no. 14 (11 August 2000): 27–28.

[In the following review, Mathias offers a positive assessment of White Teeth.]

So-called multicultural literature in many ways extends the enterprise of the early feminist writers: “the custodians of the world's best-kept secret: / Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity,” as Carolyn Kizer put it. In this first novel, Zadie Smith, the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant to Britain, continues the enterprise of giving us the view from the margins, as she sweeps Jamaican and Bangladeshi immigrants into mainstream literature in English. For a rambunctious and...

(The entire section is 1002 words.)

Merritt Moseley (review date September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moseley, Merritt. “The Modern World.” World & I 15, no. 9 (September 2000): 220.

[In the following review, Moseley assesses the depth and maturity of White Teeth, comparing Smith's sympathy for her characters and the role of her narrator to the similar traits of nineteenth-century English novelist George Eliot.]

Samad Iqbal, one of two central characters in White Teeth, Zadie Smith's remarkable debut novel, is a troubled man. He is troubled by his children, by his place in a multicultural Britain, by his inability to be the kind of good Muslim he wants himself (and others) to be. As he thinks to himself, “To the pure, all things are...

(The entire section is 2782 words.)

Daniel Soar (review date 21 September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Soar, Daniel. “Willesden Fast-Forward.” London Review of Books 22, no. 18 (21 September 2000): 30–31.

[In the following review, Soar offers a mixed assessment of White Teeth.]

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...

(The entire section is 3230 words.)

Askhari Hodari (review date September–October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hodari, Askhari. Review of White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Black Issues Book Review 2, no. 5 (September–October 2000): 27.

[In the following review, Hodari commends the wit, lively spirit, and self-assured narrative of White Teeth, but argues that the novel lacks a strong focus and its ending seems contrived.]

Many people, whether they admit it or not, have thought about suicide—have wished, if only momentarily, they were dead. Archibald Jones, a forty-something white man who folds paper for a living, took his desire to the edge of fruition.

As [White Teeth] begins, Archie is sitting locked in a car breathing noxious...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Kathleen O'Grady (review date October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Grady, Kathleen. “The Empire Strikes Back.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 1 (October 2000): 19–20.

[In the following review, O'Grady examines the multicultural themes, characters, and settings of White Teeth.]

When the renowned Andrew Wylie literary agency secured a rumored $400,000 advance for a first-time author, based on only a plot synopsis and two completed chapters, the British literary world took a serious look at the young woman who could command such numbers for the mere idea of a novel. The media tagged along, too, having already fueled the sudden rise of J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. As it turned out,...

(The entire section is 1738 words.)

John Lanchester (review date 28 February 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lanchester, John. “The Land of Accidents.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 2 (28 February 2001): 29–31.

[In the following review, Lanchester examines White Teeth, focusing on the characters's searches for self-identity in culturally diverse England.]

In April 1990, Norman Tebbit, the former chairman of the British Conservative Party, made a speech on the subject of immigration. He imagined Asian and Afro-Caribbean citizens of the United Kingdom watching a cricket match between their former homelands and their adopted country, and posed a question:

Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you...

(The entire section is 3220 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Crowley, Jason. “The Tiger Woods of Literature?” New Statesman 130, no. 4522 (29 January 2001): 57.

Crowley contemplates Smith's chances of continued success following her highly successful debut.

Hensher, Philip. “Write First Time.” Daily Telegraph (19 February 2000): 6.

Hensher interviews Smith, Peter Ho Davies, and Francine Stock about their first publications.

Hodari, Askhari. “The Mystique of Zadie Smith.” Black Issues Book Review 2, no. 5 (September–October 2000): 26–27.

Hodari examines Smith's thought processes and ideas while...

(The entire section is 334 words.)