You would think there'd be scant space left under Salman Rushdie's literary wings for all the apostles gathered there, but they had best make room for Zadie Smith. White Teeth, her epic-sized debut novel, is more truly Rushdiesque than anything published in the last decade by anyone other than Rushdie. The 25-year-old Londoner is obsessed with themes that are virtually patented territory: tragi-comic immigrant angst, crises of identity, history and faith, the state of nationlessness, the potpourri soul. Smith's triumph is that despite being stylistically imitative to the point of parody, she retains her own voice - a funny, ironic one overlain with tenderness for her characters.
On page one we meet our hero Archibald Jones, professional paper-folder, in mid-suicide, to which he has been driven by his inglorious first marriage. Saved by the local butcher, and in a celebratory mood, Archie crashes a Jehovah's Witnesses party, where he meets the toothless but ravishing 19-year-old Jamaican Clara Bowden. They are swiftly married and produce a daughter, Irie.
Archie's proclivity for making decisions on the flip of a coin originates from a traumatic wartime incident that will bind him for half a century to his friend Samad Iqbal. Samad, a Bangladeshi waiter with good looks and bad luck, negotiates his sins directly with Allah and claims to be descended from the man who sparked the 1857 revolt in India.
Iqbal and his feisty wife Alsana have twin boys, so utterly poles apart that they end up there. Magid, a devotee of science and hygiene, is sent back to Bangladesh to grow up right; while Millat remains in Willesden to become a leader of no-good men, a seducer of all women, and a member of a secretive group who go by the inelegant acronym of kevin (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation).
Settled in the suburb of Willesden, everybody blunders along with their own small traumas. Then, into the ambit of these two closely-tied families, come the Chalfens. And all the faultlines begin to rumble horribly. Alsana and Clara deeply disapprove of the unconventional Chalfen way, and its effect on their children, but can only watch as things start to fall apart. Mrs Chalfen succumbs to Millat's cynical charms, Irie runs away and throws herself into science as the assistant to Marcus Chalfen's homegrown experiments on mice, Magid becomes insufferably pompous. Archie wisely stays out of it all, and in the apocalyptic final moment, he alone gains a valuable lesson.
Smith celebrates and lambasts every kind of faith, and there are many. The lunatic fringe kind, from which Clara and Irie have fled; the scientific kind, in which Magid and Marcus' research is rooted; Samad's institutional kind; the cryptic, power-driven kind that ensnares Millat; and the coin-flipping kind on which Archie bets life and death. But in the confusion of it all, she spares something small and essential and very peculiarly human.
For all the richness of White Teeth, ultimately only Smith's genuine involvement with the characters saves them from being totally flattened by the sweep of the story. If the novel flags a little in its last quarter, and if the ending disappoints, still, White Teeth has much to offer. Smith is a great writer, with an irrepressible sense of humour. If she sometimes makes cultural mistakes - such as asserting that good Hindus would never drink bhang - she is usually psychologically spot-on. Her expansive sense of fun with language may have overtaxed the story this time, but for the future: heads, Zadie Smith wins; tails, she wins.