June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

by Zadie Smith

“It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke bouncing a basketball and Irie Jones humming a tune.” So Smith describes the simmering melting pot that is North London before turning up the heat full boil in this vibrant, rollicking first novel about race and identity. Teeth revolves around an odd pair of best mates: Archibald Jones, a typical working-class Englishman (save for his marriage to Clara, a gorgeous, toothless Jamaican 28 years his junior), and fellow World War II vet Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim (and Omar Sharif lookalike) caught between an arranged marriage and a waiter’s job in a tacky curry house. But it is Iqbal’s kids who are on a collision course, rushing headlong toward a new, multicultural world as they struggle to escape their refugee history. His twin sons have gone into separate orbits: Millat is a pot-smoking, Goodfellas-loving superstud who joins a militant Islamic group known as KEVIN (yes, they have an acronym problem); Magid is sent back to the motherland to be saved—and returns an atheist and Anglophile. But their best friend, the Joneses’ savvy daughter Irie, manages to reconcile past and present and find an Eden in England’s chaotic, cross-pollinated environment. She is the hybrid who blossoms. Only 24, Smith deserves the rich praise critics have heaped upon her. She sometimes loses control of her ambitious, unwieldy tale (especially the ending), but she has a remarkable ear for dialect, and her prickly wit is affectionate and poignant. (Random House, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Radiant, absorbing novel

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