In Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage makes both motherhood and daughterhood terrifying, or perhaps just lays bare the terror that’s been there all along. Alternating between the perspectives of mute, violent 7-year-old Hanna and her chronically ill stay-at-home mother, Suzette, Baby Teeth is a deeply unsettling and hauntingly realistic horror story. Stage’s writing style is crisp, creepy, and compulsively readable; I can already tell that all its haunting little details have worked themselves deep into my psyche. I loved this book, even if it’s going to have me sleeping with a night light on for the foreseeable future.
You can read my full review below.
Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
- publisher: St. Martin’s Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
- publication date: July 17, 2018
- length: 320 pages
She had tried, as a little girl, to express what was within her. But it came out like marbles. Nonsense. Babbling. Disappointing even to her own ears. She’d practiced, alone in her room, but the bugs fell from her mouth, frighteningly alive, scampering over her skin and bedclothes. She flicked them away. Watched them escape under her closed door. Words, ever unreliable, were no one’s friend.
–from Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
I went into Baby Teeth expecting some kind of substitute Gillian Flynn-inspired horror, yet another novel that would temporarily fill the Gone Girl and Sharp Objects-shaped hole in my heart without ever really capturing the pulse of what makes those novels great. Boy, was I wrong: Baby Teeth is a potent and terrifying experience all its own, no pale comparisons to Flynn needed.
In Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage efficiently winds up an unsettling conflict between a mother and her young daughter–Suzette and Hanna, respectively–in a chapter or two, and then spends the next 300 or so pages toying with the reader. This novel gave me a literal feeling of queasiness. First Suzette has the upper hand, then Hanna; vicious acts of violence are immediately undercut by devastating emotional vulnerabilities.
There’s nowhere safe to place your sympathies. In the end, no one has the upper hand here but Stage.
My favorite part of Baby Teeth is its specificity: Suzette is a Jewish interior designer who feels alienated from her religious and ethnic heritage because of her abusive mother. Suzette’s husband and Hanna’s father, Alex, is a Swedish architect who loves fika and holidays. (There is a significant amount of Swedish in this book, little of it directly translated.) We get all kinds of believable detail about this family’s home, food, clothes, and rituals, meaning that when those rituals inevitably fall apart, we’re just as disturbed and unmoored as the characters are.
I especially loved how health and illness were handled. Suzette has Crohn’s disease, and lives in terror of flares, surgeries, fistulas, and colostomy bags; even though my chronic illnesses are different, Stage captures the fear and uncertainty of chronic illness just right. When mental illness and intellectual disabilities enter the novel in significant ways, Stage zeroes in on what’s scary about those things without piling on stigma. (In fact, much of the horror in this novel springs directly from the stigma and institutionalization its characters experience.)
Choosing to tell this story from a dual perspective was risky, especially when one of those perspectives is that of a mute 7-year-old. Lucky for us, Stage makes it look effortless. Each voice is distinct; all the needling ways Suzette and Hanna get under each other’s skin are incredibly discomfiting since they’re so believable. No dramatic pea soup vomiting here: just the dynamics that are inherent to parent/child relationships, ever so slightly dialed up to the “chilling” setting.
Suzette is so terrified of being a bad mother (just like her own bad, abusive mother) that it brings out the bad mother in her. Even if you’re not a parent, who can’t identify with that helpless feeling of failure? And who can’t identify with being afraid of your own creation, biological or otherwise?
Meanwhile, Hanna becomes the cuckoo in Suzette and Alex’s marriage, determined to push out Suzette and get her (clueless, trusting) father’s love all to herself. She may go to desperate lengths to do so, but that hunger for love feels universal.
I did find Baby Teeth‘s third act a little overlong and understuffed, and its ending was not quite as conclusive as I wanted it to be. But that’s hardly a dealbreaker in a novel that’s otherwise so electrifyingly good.
In a novel this scary, you expect monsters. But it’s much more frightening–and satisfying–that ultimately, there are none. ★★★★☆
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I purchased my own copy of Baby Teeth and was in no way compensated for this review.