For the first half of Zadie Smith’s debut novel I was frequently reminded of Salman Rushdie’s better work, most notably The Satanic Verses.
White Teeth has none of the magical elements of Rushdie’s great and controversial novel but it’s stylistically similar and touches on many similar motifs and themes: the racial melting pot of modern London, family discord, the battle between religion and secularism.
So I felt very clever when at around page 250 Rushdie suddenly turned up as a character.
He’s the unnamed but unmistakeable author of an incendiary new novel that has London’s Muslims – including one of the book’s main players, the wild but conflicted teenager Millat Iqbal – up in arms.
I’ve since learnt two things: 1) it’s not a new comparison and 2) it’s a comparison Smith herself believes is incredibly racist. Sorry, Zadie.
She thinks the link is made simply because both novels deal with the plight of immigrants in England and both novelists are brown.
But I have to say I disagree – Smith’s writing is clearly influenced by Rushdie’s. That is not to diminish White Teeth, only contextualise it: it’s an excellent book in its own right by a precocious talent.
(It wasn’t until I finished the book that I found out Smith was only 21-years-old when she wrote it – I quickly went from impressed to astounded.)
Next: Another tale of religion and racial exclusion.