If I give you the TL;DR of this book, it’s simplistic: a mute seven-year-old girl is a sweet angel around her father, but a demon to her mother when daddy’s at work. The longer version reveals something more complex and exciting. Baby Teeth is the debut novel of Zoje Stage. It has some echoes of The Bad Seed by William March (I enjoyed both the film and book).
In Baby Teeth, Hanna is seven. She’s never spoken to another person. Not that she can’t; she won’t.
Suzette is Hanna’s mother. She has PTSD from surgeries meant to help her Crohn’s disease that went badly, isolating her from friends and school, until she met Alex, her one and only lover and boyfriend. Suzette’s own mother was unsympathetic and distant.
Alex is Hanna’s father. An architect from Sweden who focuses on green buildings, he’s the breadwinner and loves the work he does for his own company. Suzette occasionally does interior designing for Alex’s clients — the couple are dynamite as a package — but for the last several years Hanna has been too much for Suzette to keep working.
Once they tried to put the imaginative, intelligent girl in school, she ramped up her nasty side, encouraging other children to harm themselves, lighting trash cans on fire, and barking at and trying to bite adults. She’s been kicked out of many schools, and though she hates her mother, staying at home with mommy to be home-schooled is better than being surrounded by strange adults and noisy children. Basically, readers follow along as Hanna tries to kill Suzette, Suzette tries to get her child into school so she can have a break from the horror, and Alex remains concerned and dubious. What will be the breaking point? Where will this trio end up on the last page?
I’ve seen some fairly negative reviews of Baby Teeth on Goodreads, but they didn’t dissuade me. Zoje Stage writes chapters in alternating third-person perspectives between Suzette and Hanna. While Hanna’s point-of-view is more simplistic and childish, keeping the character in third person allows Stage to add information that a little girl may not know. Stage pushes credibility a wee bit, she never fully broke it for me. Hanna sees things her parents don’t realize they emote; she’s smarter than they know, and it’s a problem that leads to her anger.
Suzette’s perspective is even more revealing. Though she loves her daughter, Suzette wonders if having a child was a mistake put into motion that can’t be undone. She needs a break from being the only witness — to Hanna’s violence, her manipulation, and lately to her speaking. That’s right, speaking — albeit in a French accent and in the guise of a real burnt witch Hanna learned about from Google. Lacking validation, Suzette wonders if she’s going mad, if she’s a bad mother who wants to be a family of two again, and if the added stress of her violent child is going to affect her delicate digestion mutilated by Crohn’s. Once readers open Suzette’s door, she proves to be a monster herself, though one we understand.
That that’s the beauty of Baby Teeth: I wasn’t rooting for anyone all the time. Sure, in The Bad Seed I thought Rhoda was evil, the father was a dingbat, and the mother was the victim. Not so in Stage’s novel. Each character bobs and weaves with realistic wavering as decisions and emotions affect them in different situations. I had no idea how the story would conclude, and I read all 304 pages in two long sittings. I thought the ending was lovely and still could not decide how I felt about the characters, which is a good for me. I don’t want people to be so clear cut as to be unrealistic. A highly recommended read, especially for Halloween!