Baby Teeth: Debut Novel Turns Motherhood into Horror Show

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
Genre: Horror
Publisher: St. Martins Press
Date: July 17, 2018
Reviewed by: Dez Nemec
Fiction Addict Scorecard: B

“Hanna knew nothing was wrong with her. But Mommy wanted them to look. Again.”

Baby Teeth begins with Hanna at the hospital having tests. One paragraph into the book, and we already are seeing tension between Hanna and her mother, Suzette. Hanna is in a CT machine at the hospital because her parents are concerned. At the age of 7, Hanna still isn’t talking. The tests come back fine, however, and the doctor gives them a referral to a pediatric psychologist as the concern has become that she won’t talk, rather than can’t talk.

The book presents us with the competing perspectives of Hanna and Suzette. The reader sees immediately that Hanna is an insightful and intelligent little girl, but also extraordinarily manipulative for her age. Actually, almost terrifyingly so. She is a troublemaker – she hit a crying baby at Trader Joe’s; gave one of her classmates paint to drink; and set a garbage can on fire in the school cafeteria. She’s also bright enough not to act on all her impulses. Two girls were jumping rope at school, but to Hanna, that was dumb. “Hanna thought it would be a much better game if she could tie the rope around one of their necks. And then maybe she – would any other children help? – could drag her along like a pull toy and watch her wiggle and scream. That would be fun.” Shivers.

As bad as that is, the acts against her mother are worse. Hanna empties her medicine capsules and replaces the contents with flour; hacks off Suzette’s hair in her sleep; and makes a lovely collage featuring Suzette sleeping, surrounded by Victorian mourning photos of dead women. She even begins to utter sentences to her mother while they are alone, saying her name isn’t Hanna but Marie-Anne Dufosset, a witch that was burned at the stake in 1679 France.

Then Hanna really gets started torturing her mother. But never in front of her father. She has a special relationship with Daddy, and he can’t know what a rotten kid she is. That is the whole point. If Hanna can rid her father of Suzette, then they can be free to live together peacefully without her awful mother around. It’s almost Oedipal, the way she feels about her father. She needs him to herself and needs her mother out of the picture.

Suzette is absolutely at her wits end. She has her own health problems, having just had surgery weeks before the book begins. At age 13, she began having symptoms of Crohn’s Disease, but her mother ignored the issue until four years later when she was rushed to the hospital and had part of her bowels removed. As a result, Suzette has an almost desperate need to be a good mother, but Hanna simply won’t allow that.

I really felt for Suzette. She’s dealing with her health problems, which are exasperated by stress. She must home-school Hanna, as she has been kicked out of three separate schools for behavioral problems. And Alex, the beloved Daddy, always seems to be taking Hanna’s side. (Him I wanted to smack upside the head a few times.) He is one of those “in denial” parents, telling teachers and principals: not my daughter, you have no proof, she’s not violent. It’s not until Hanna really starts gearing up to kill her mother that he realizes Hanna isn’t the angel that she portrays to him.

The alternating viewpoints between Suzette and Hanna were a stroke of genius. Having Hanna’s viewpoint was an invaluable part of Baby Teeth. In hindsight, it makes sense – if we want to know the motivations of a mute child, what better way than for her to tell us what she’s thinking? Being in her head isn’t necessarily a good thing though – the child is demented. Her final acts of terror toward Suzette and manipulation toward her father show (in my opinion) that she will never be the normal little girl her parents want her to be.

If you are one of those people who thinks all kids are special little people, wonderful and worthy of our undying adoration, you should probably run screaming from this book. If you know kids can be jerks and/or want to feel better about your little (jerk) angelic offspring, you’ll probably enjoy this.

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