Just how good is Zadie Smith? The 24-year-old North London writer churned out White Teeth, her epic and awesome first novel, when she was 21 and a senior at Cambridge. Jaws began to drop immediately.
It is very much a book about contemporary London and the explosive culture clash that simmers at the heart of the city. Sound familiar?
At the core of the novel are two families, the Iqbals and the Joneses. The Iqbals -- Samad, Alsana and their twin sons, Millit and Magid -- are immigrants from Bangladesh struggling to become "English." Archie Jones is about as English as it gets, while his wife, Clara, is a black woman a fraction his age who names their daughter Irie in tribute to her Jamaican heritage.
Amidst the turbulent friendship between the two families, Smith weaves failed suicides, earthquakes, teenage rebellion, a man and his genetically engineered mouse, a sect of militant Muslims with the rather uninspiring name KEVIN, a hard-nosed English pub owner who names all his children Abdul, and a clan of Jehovah's Witnesses waiting impatiently for the end of the world.
White Teeth comes with a prominent endorsement on the cover from Salman Rushdie, and it's fitting. Smith shares Rushdie's elastic grasp of language, plot and reality as well as his casually surreal sense of humour, but deploys them with a much lighter touch, alternating between Jamaican patois and North London slang and managing to keep the dozens of storylines in check.
The culture question, and in particular issues of immigration and assimilation, drives White Teeth's narratives but never overwhelms them.
For a first effort, it's astonishing. White Teeth makes you impatient for what's still to come.