“A trauma is something one repeats and repeats, after all, and this is the tragedy of the Iqbals–that they can’t help but reenact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign.”
This is a novel about identity, a lengthy examination of a simple idea: the impossibility of escaping your family’s past.
The idea that we are islands — people who can live apart from the histories that brought us to the piece of rock we stake our claims on — is batted about in this book like a mouse by an angry cat. Characters, particularly the second-generation children, slip in and out of different cultural identities like they’re trying on new suits.
Sometimes these characters want to abide by the cultures they’ve been taught to value; sometimes they are making desperate attempts at individuality, at casting aside the expectations of not just their families but the society they are trying to make their way in. They have mixed success, but it’s consistently entertaining to read about.
The omniscient narrator feels like a calm voice in the middle of a hurricane, a dispassionate yet wise woman who is guiding you through a complicated maze of her own making.
It sometimes feels like this novel doesn’t know where it’s going, like the main plot-line has taken a back-seat to whatever random musings have appeared in different characters’ minds, sometimes for fifty-pages at a time, but maybe that’s appropriate. Things rarely occur in real life, after all, in simple, straight forwards ways, or the way we expect, so why should they here?
White Teeth is an entertaining look at Britain’s identity crisis, and a great snapshot of the different forces which help make the UK the complicated, diverse, interesting place it is.