In 2000, ZADIE SMITH (born 1975) published her first novel, White Teeth, which she finished writing while still in college. Its events, which parallel her own history growing up in North London, child of a Jamaican mother and white father, capture the intense feelings of global interconnection and rootlessness that seem so present in our age. Through a mosaic of characters, Smith explores the simultaneous commitments an individual has to her history, her spouse, her country, her children — and the mess these commitments make when they point in different directions, as they always must. Smith is a stand-up comic, mimicking the speech of frustrated Indian wives, working-class English blokes, teenagers (Jewish, half-Jamaican), stoned millenarians, or the middlebrow-striving-for-highbrow middle class at a furious pace. Smith damned the book herself shortly after publication, calling it the “literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old.” But like Shirley Temple, the energy erupts out of White Teeth — the characters are brilliant caricatures, the code-switching required to produce the dialogue is wondrous, and it’s funny. In future books, she has continued to sketch out this world of second-generation immigrants, surprising religious converts (Black Jews!), interracial marriage, strikingly odd characters (hello, Alex-li Tandem), and troubled identity… but never so vibrantly as in White Teeth, the new millennium’s first perfect novel.
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