You know that feeling, when you’re in the airport and you see an exhausted single mother wrangling with a clan of asshole kiddies, and you think “hmm… Maybe I shouldn’t ever have kids”? Maybe it’s just me, as I’m fairly intolerant of misbehavior, but I suspect there are plenty of people out there who have experienced this sense of terror. The thing is, the more you want kids (or think you do), the more sobering it is to see children wreaking havoc, and the more horrific it is when we’re confronted with the possibility of giving birth to some sort of tiny demon. Entertainment like The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby are successful because they’re able to exploit those vulnerabilities, and Zoje Stage’s debut novel, Baby Teeth, seeks to follow in this tradition.
There are so many things I really liked about Baby Teeth, from its realistic portrayal of a couple who are struggling to keep their marriage together as the special needs of their child threaten to tear them apart, to the constant, but underlying, sense of danger that permeates Suzette’s life. The dual narrative and Stage’s choice to alternate between such different voices was perhaps ambitious, but it was mostly effective. It also made me feel uneasy, and I appreciate a book that is able to come alive to the extent that it boils into your blood stream, circulating, disrupting your otherwise-normal life. Whether a book is ‘pleasurable’ or disturbing, its ability to stay with me, to provoke real emotion and thought, is always appreciated. I had to keep reading because I had to know how it all would end. Yet I was conflicted because I was bored much of the time and wanted the book to just get it over with. Rarely do I ever skip chunks of a book for the purpose of getting to the end more quickly– if I feel like I’m slogging through a book, I put it down. After all, there are just too many great books out there to waste any time with something that’s not appealing to me. But I needed to know, so I made an exception and skipped about seventy pages, from about the 3/5 to 4/5 mark, and I’m glad I did.
This book is a slow burn, and I don’t think it’s tense enough, poetic enough, or that it builds enough in the end to ‘earn’ its lack of pacing. To me, it would’ve benefitted greatly from a vicious edit session, to get it down by about 30%. I could see threads of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but I don’t think Baby Teeth goes quite far enough. That being said, a lot of the reviews I’ve read have knocked it for being “too shocking”, “melodramatic”, and “disturbing”, and a common criticism is that it’s billed as a thriller when it should be considered a horror. I personally don’t agree with any of these critics, and it’s hard for me not to dismiss these reviewers as overly sensitive prudes. I would’ve been more engrossed and impressed had Stage really gone there– think Let the Right One In, where the imagery is visceral and haunting enough that it turns your stomach.
Overall, the idea and characters were interesting. I love the willfully-mute, psychopath child haunting her chronically ill mother, and a doting father who is caught between these two. I think the ending was strong, and the conflict was realistic. No parents want to be in this position, and I’ve personally witnessed how something like this can wrack each parent with guilt and tear the marriage at its seams. I thought the ending was bold with its disregard for the “politically correct” way of handling this sort of issue (i.e. all the whinging mummies who would protest that institutionalizing one’s child is morally despicable). Suzette finds her voice and makes a difficult decision that, ultimately, is more out of self preservation than out of what’s right for her daughter. However, as many things as there were that worked in this novel, it didn’t quite come together for me. I think that it would actually be better suited for an atmospheric film, filled with subtle tension. I look forward to seeing Zoje Stage’s career progress, and am interested in reading what she releases next, as I do find her to be a promising new talent.
Rating: 3/5 stars