Baby Teeth: A Novel
“Baby Teeth is a very satisfying read. More psychological thriller than horror, it’s a finely crafted exploration of the breakdown of the family unit . . .”
Zoje Stage’s debut novel Baby Teeth is a deliciously creepy tale that pushes the boundaries of the dysfunctional family into very dark territory.
Set in Pittsburg, PA, the plot revolves around young mother Suzette Jensen, her husband Alex and their mute seven-year-old daughter, Hanna. Hanna’s mutism is a cause of great concern to her mother, who sees it as a sign of her bad parenting, but in reality, it’s a sign of something much darker.
As the very tightly woven tale moves along, jumping between the heads of Suzette and Hanna, Stage’s skill comes to the fore. The author forces you to feel sympathy for Suzette one moment and then judge her the next. With Hanna, you wonder at first if she is just an attention-seeking brat—until the bad things start happening.
There’s a definite creep-factor to Hanna; the girl’s malevolent mind-games becoming increasingly more sophisticated. As a reader you are constantly second-guessing yourself. Is she acting out, or is she truly evil? There are many parallels in the tale to other novels like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, and occasionally it feels like familiar territory, but what sets Baby Teeth apart is that it goes much deeper into the trials of being a parent and childhood mental illness.
The author’s portrayal of Suzette, this fragile, Crohn’s Disease-afflicted, helpless mother, is very precise. Hanna meanwhile, with her Machiavellian schemes, is almost too clever for her own good, but you can’t help but keep turning the pages to see what she does to her mother next.
Stage pits all three in the Jensen family against each other, and it’s intricately detailed with emotion. Although it does seem to take a long time for the father, Alex to come to his senses and see that something is seriously wrong with his daughter, he acts as anchor point for the reader, the center-point in the see-saw of doubt.
The supernatural elements are minor, with Stage introducing witches and hints of Walpurgis Night into the mix, but still these are intended to keep the reader wondering what is truly going on with Hanna.
The psychological aspects of the story are well-crafted with Stage confirming the reader’s pre-conceptions, lulling us into a false sense of security. Seeds of doubt are the strongest aspects of the author’s plotting. Her prose is also succinct, and delightfully flecked with some truly creepy aspects of Hanna’s persona:
“While it was very easy to think of ways to harm her, it was very hard—even with Marie-Anne’s help—to think of things that wouldn’t immediately give her away. Mommy would see if she pushed her down the stairs, but Hanna didn’t think the fall would do much more than annoy her. She could stab her in the heart while she slept and then carefully wipe her fingerprints off the knife . . .”
As the novel reaches its crescendo, Stage offers a glimmer of hope, with some tender moments between mother, daughter, and father. The reader can’t help but feel pity and sorrow for Hanna when a tough decision looks to split the family up for good. But this is Stage getting to the heart of the story, ramming home just how tragic family dysfunction can be and the costs it can bring to bear. Is the hope real? The ending, although true to Hanna’s devious character, leaves the prospect of up to reader.
All in all, Baby Teeth is a very satisfying read. More psychological thriller than horror, it’s a finely crafted exploration of the breakdown of the family unit which not only pulls at the heart-strings, but threatens to sever them. I look forward to seeing what dark delights Stage conjures up next.