The first section is entitled Archie 1974, 1945. Here, Smith begins a pattern of setting the tone for each section with a quote from an outside source. In the first section, Smith quotes E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread: "Every little trifle, for some reason, does seem incalculably important today and when you say of a thing that 'nothing hangs on it' it sounds like blasphemy. There's never any knowing--how am I to put it?--which of our actions, which of our idlenesses won't have things hanging on it for ever."
Chapter 1- The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones
We meet Alfred Archibald Jones (Archie) at what he thinks will be the end of his life. He is slumped across his steering wheel on Cricklewood Broadway, waiting for the carbon monoxide fumes filling his car to kill him. Cricklewood Broadway is not a romantic place to die, as it is merely a byway to bigger roads. However, it is somehow appropriate for a character as ordinary as Archie. The butcher, Mo Hussein-Ishmael, begins his morning cutting down pigeons with his cleaver as usual. He spots Archie parked illegally on his street, and after sending his son to investigate, discovers Archie is trying to commit suicide. He saves Archie more out of fear for a parking violation than any sort of altruism. Upon being saved, Archie has an epiphany. For the first time in his life, he feels as though he is worth something. "Although he was not one of her better specimens, Life wanted Archie and Archie, much to his own surprise, wanted Life."
Archie attempts suicide because his wife, Ophelia Diagilo, has gone mad and divorced him. Though married thirty years, the two were never a good match. They met while Archie was stationed in Italy during the War and she served him a cappuccino at a cafe. Apparently, Archie's mediocrity is what drove Ophelia over the edge. Before parking on Cricklewood Broadway to end his life, Archie went back to his house to collect a broken Hoover, the tube of which he rigged from his exhaust pipe into his car. All the while, he dodged insults from Ophelia's relatives, but was determined to reclaim what was his, even if it was defective (this vacuum blew air out instead of sucking it in--terrible for cleaning but perfect for suicide). He left his decision to kill himself to the flip of a coin. Afterwards, he met his old war buddy, Samad Iqbal, in O'Connell's pub. Samad told Archie he should never have married Ophelia, and that he should give himself a second chance. However, his despair leads him to attempt suicide as planned. In the midst of the act, he thinks over the unimpressive events of his life. Archie was in the War with Samad, but saw little combat, and later on had a job deciding how things should be folded. Even when he won thirteenth place in the 1948 Olympics in London, he shared the relatively low honor with an exuberant Swedish gynecologist named Horst Ibelgaufts. After the competition, the two men shared a hotel room and had sex with prostitutes. Since then, Horst sent him occasional, eerily prophetic letters. Strangely, Archie's last thought before passing out and being awakened by Mo is of Daria, his post-Olympic prostitute.
After Mo saves him, Archie drives around town full of joie de vivre. He happens upon a commune with a banner in the window proclaiming: "Welcome to the End of the World Party, 1975." Though old and unattractive, he is allowed in and spends the next several hours drinking and conversing with the young commune inhabitants. After narrowly escaping an argument about the War, he is mesmerized by a young woman named Clara Bowden as she descends the staircase. She is an extremely sexy young Jamaican woman, perfect in every way Archie can tell save her lack of upper teeth. Though she is nineteen and he forty-seven, they are attracted to each other instantly and are married six weeks later.
Chapter 2- Teething Trouble
The narrator informs us, somewhat indignantly, that Clara is not an airy vision no matter how Archie might see her. Rather, "Clara [is] from somewhere. She [has] roots." In fact, Clara is from Lambeth, Jamaica, and when she meets Archie, she has just ended an eight-month relationship with a boy named Ryan Topps, an unattractive, gangly boy. Clara herself is an awkward and bucktoothed Jehovah's Witness, and they are the two least popular kids in school. However, Clara admires Ryan and feels as though she is meant to save him. Clara's mother, Hortense Bowden, is a staunch Jehovah's Witness born during the Jamaican earthquake of 1907. Her father is Darcus Bowden, so debilitated by a mysterious illness that he does nothing but watch television from his armchair. Unshaken by previous miscalculations of the date of Judgment Day, Hortense is preparing for the newest projected date: New Year's Day, 1975.
Clara meets Ryan Topps when she visits his house to proselytize. From then on, they are a couple. Clara dedicates herself to Ryan and everything of interest to him, and soon trades her religious activities for trendy clothing and music. One day, Clara gets detention and is late meeting Ryan. She finds him at her house, where, to her shock, Hortense is feeding him and chatting with him. Ryan spends every following afternoon with Hortense and becomes a Jehovah's Witness. In an unlikely turn of events, "Suddenly the saved and the unsaved [have] come a miraculous full circle. Hortense and Ryan [are] now trying to save [Clara]." One day, Ryan tries to win Clara back to the Church as they ride on his scooter. Distracted, he crashes into a tree and they are thrown in opposite directions. Clara's top teeth are knocked out, but Ryan is completely uninjured. He takes this as the final sign that he is destined to be saved. Therefore, on New Year's Eve, 1975, Ryan Topps prays with Hortense while Clara goes to the End-of-the-World party she helped plan at the commune. Although the world does not end, she finds herself still longing for a savior, which helps her fall for Archie despite all of his shortcomings.
Chapter 3- Two Families
Clara marries Archie, and Hortense disowns her. Although Clara rejects her family's faith, not having the "safety net" of religion worries her. Clara and Archie move into a nice-enough house in a nice-enough area of town called Willesden Green. Clara realizes quickly that while Archie is a good man, he is no knight in shining armor. He spends most of his time with Samad. Clara thinks back to their wedding in a crowded registry office. They simply signed forms and she became a Jones. Only Samad and Alsana, whom Clara met that day, attended. Their only other congratulations came from Horst Ibelgaufts. Though Archie had not told him about the wedding, his letters were generally prophetic. From that day on, Archie proves an indecisive person and lover, preferring to settle any and all disputes by the flip of a coin.
Alsana Iqbal sews clothing for an S&M shop. Samad Iqbal works as a waiter in an Indian restaurant, run by his distant cousin, Ardashir Mukhul. He makes the fewest tips of all the waiters, while an attractive Hindu named Shiva Bhagwati makes the most. However, at the end of each night, they are split evenly. This arrangement makes for high tension, and Samad is disparaged constantly. He feels cheated by his identity as a waiter, knowing he could be so much more. Samad and Alsana move to Willesden, though Alsana is initially furious that they have money for a new house but not for food. Here, we are introduced to her fiery temper. Alsana ends her argument with Samad by punching him in the mouth, tearing her clothing to shreds, and storming out of the house in just a coat. After picking up Samad's shoes from her cobbler niece, Neena (whom she calls Niece-of-Shame), she stops to chat with Clara. Clara knows nothing of Alsana's pregnancy until she mentions it. This makes the women realize the dark possibility that their husbands might be keeping everything important from them.
In the opening quote, Forster remarks that on particular days, especially the last day of one's life, every "trifle" bears a weighty meaning. This does not only apply to Archie's attempted suicide, but is a message to the reader about how the novel should be approached. Archie might be looking for a sign that he is right or wrong in his actions, or might simply trying to make the last moments count as much as possible. However, it is particularly fitting for Archie to focus on the unremarkable (such as the Hoover and Diana) in his last moments, as he is decidedly mediocre individual. Even Archie's claim to fame, placing thirteenth in the Olympics, is barely remarkable and was shared with someone else. Even Cricklewood Broadway reflects Archie's mediocrity, as it is a stretch of road unremarkable in its own right, known only because it is a byway to more important places.
In addition, the opening quote reads as Smith's defense of the ordinary. She suggests that every existence is worth examining, no matter how mundane it might seem. By casting the novel in light of Forster's quote, Smith challenges us to believe in the importance even of a man be who trusts his most important decisions to a literal coin flip. Indeed, by the end of the book, Archie proves remarkable and heroic. The opening quote not only introduces us to Archie, but also subtly instructs us to pay heed to detail as we read on.
Chapters 2 and 3 continue our examination of those who endow "trifles" with great importance. Two such groups are the Jehovah's Witnesses and the members of a commune. Though disparate, they share with each other and with Archie a fatalistic mindset: the world might end tomorrow. Jehovah's Witnesses, such as Hortense, place great importance on their actions, especially with Judgment Day at hand. Any small sin could ruin Hortense's chance of being one of the saved. Therefore, ignoring the importance of details could lead not only to missed opportunities, but also to eternal damnation. The hippies, Mods, and other members of the commune also live each day as their last, but to opposite effect: they drink, smoke marijuana, and are promiscuous.
In Chapter 2, Smith also extends our consideration of trifles to that of 'accidents' or coincidences. For instance, were Ryan injured in the scooter accident, he might have rejected his newfound faith. However, Ryan instead devotes the rest of his life to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Accidents also allow Archie and Clara to meet. Archie is accidentally saved by Mo, who really just wants him to move his car, and Clara has her teeth knocked out, cementing her separation from the Church. They both find refuge at the commune, and spend the rest of their lives together. In her discussion of accidents, Smith brings up the first of many meanings for "white teeth." Here, they reflect that things do not always go as planned. Teeth grow in incorrectly or get knocked out just as children do not grow up as expected. Along with her upper teeth, Clara's religious heritage gets pulled out by the root.
Samad is a foil for Archie. Unlike his friend, Samad places importance on everything and refuses to settle for mediocrity. Later in the novel, the men's parenting styles reflect their approaches to life. While Archie takes his parenting style from Irie's name, "Ok, cool, peaceful," Samad goes to extremes to control Magid and Millat. Samad has "the urge, the need, to speak to every man, and, like the Ancient Mariner, explain constantly, constantly wanting to reassert something, anything." Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Samad knows he cannot correct his past failures. Ironically, Samad cannot control even his petite wife, Alsana, who wins fights by bullying him. Emerging from the first three chapters, the reader is primed to pay heed to detail, expect the unexpected, and place great importance on Smith's 'trifling' cast of characters.