Title: Baby Teeth
Author: Zoje Stage
Published: July 16th 2018
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Crime, Thriller
Rating: 4 stars
On the outside it looks like Suzette has it all. A stunning ultra-modern home, designed by her handsome Swedish husband. A beautiful, but silent, seven-year-old daughter who is fiercely intelligent. But under the shiny veneer, the cracks are all too clear.
For her daughter Hanna isn’t just clever, she’s dangerous. Her behaviour is carefully calculated. She adores her father, yet wants Suzette to disappear. And as Hanna’s tricks become increasingly sophisticated – from tampering with her mother’s daily medication, imitating a rabid dog, to setting Suzette on fire – it’s increasingly clear that there is something seriously wrong with their little girl.
Because what kind of child wants to kill their own mother?
Baby Teeth, the disturbing and oh so creepy debut featuring an undiagnosed troubled child is the focus of debut writer Zoje Stage’s first novel. Baby Teeth has a great cover. The shattered image of a sweet red lollipop is a striking metaphor and a hint of the events that surface in the book. Beneath the sweet exterior of a seven year old girl, the principal protagonist of Baby Teeth, lies a master manipulator, determined to remove her mother from her father’s grip in any way she can. It is a tense, maddening and sickening ride that I couldn’t advert my eyes from.
Suzette is a woman many would envy, based on appearances. She is a wife and mother, blessed with a stunning home and is adored by her loving husband, Alex. But this seemingly perfect family has problems, big problems and they lie with young Hanna, the couple’s seven year daughter. After exhausting many educational institutions for her behaviour, Hanna is now homeschooled. But Hanna is extremely intelligent and very adept at manipulation. She knows how to switch from sickly sweet with her father, to something else quite sinister when with her mother. But Hanna has a deadly game plan in action and Suzette had better watch her back. Can it possible for a child to be so disturbed that they want to kill their mother? Baby Teeth consider this question and much more.
I predict that Baby Teeth is going to be one of the talked about novels of the year. It releases in Australia officially today, but already it has quite the cult following on the Goodreads community. Collecting over a thousand reviews already, it is clear this novel has both collected reader’s attention and polarised reviewers. Some reviewers have chosen to sit on the fence, but I while I didn’t ‘enjoy’ this novel due to the dark subject matter and extremely disturbing central child protagonist, I appreciated the writing in Baby Teeth.
As both a mother of a child around the same age as the main protagonist, seven year old Hanna and a teacher of children of this age, I found this book quite confronting and thought provoking. While other reviewers before me have commented on the plausibility of a seven year old child committing the acts of appealing behaviour against her mother and other young children, I did find it shocking but quite possible all the same. There were many shocking instances of violence and cruelty against the mother in this story and other innocents. This led me to question the help this family received and sought out, especially on the educational institution end. It also led me to consider the treatment of mental illness at the child level. In Hanna’s particular case, I kept trying to search my mind for a diagnosis.
Stage’s debut is a well written and expressive, unveiling events from both sides of the story. Stage includes both Hanna’s point of view and Suzette’s side of the events. This is a novel with a strong psychological slant. Through Stage’s style of narrative we are privy to Hanna’s state of mind and Suzette’s fears, sense of hopelessness, as well as varying emotions. This style of plotting allows the reader to develop empathy for Suzette and somewhat try to understand Hanna. Alex, the father of the tale, is represented through the eyes of Hanna and Suzette, who both love him in their own way. Alex is a rather weak figure, who I become frustrated with over his reluctance to accept that both his wife was in danger and his daughter is extremely disturbed, requiring extreme mental health intervention.
Baby Teeth is a conglomerate of the psychological/thriller/horror/domestic noir genres. I found it evenly paced and the subject matter so disturbing, I could not turn my eyes away from this, like a toddler having a massive meltdown. I wanted to offer my help and condolences, as well as shake some sense into this whole crumbling family unit. Stage also does a good job of zoning in on family and relationship dynamics. Stage looks at a relationship between a mother and daughter that is highly dysfunctional. Stage also examines an obsession between a daughter and her father, along with a strong sexual attraction between a husband and wife. In addition, the author also considers the battle between being a good parent and maintaining a sense of self while bringing up a child.
There were a few other aspects of this novel that commanded my attention. The symbolism of teeth, which runs through the novel was an interesting angle. There are instances where the lead, Hanna, refers to her own teeth, the new ones forming and the appearance of teeth in those who end up helping to treat her. It is curious analogy. There is also a link to witchcraft practice in the 1600’s which was a fascinating side angle to the story, adding a sense of demonology and possession to Hanna’s deranged state.
I must also mention that I found the focus on the mother, Suzette’s battle with Crohn’s disease and how this impacted on her pregnancy with Hanna very interesting indeed. It helped to shine a light on a disease I admit to knowing very little on. It is quite debilitating and the book exposes the extent to which this can impact upon the wellness of its sufferers. This angle of the novel definitely has a part to play in the overall reactions of the family in Baby Teeth.
When I came to the end of this rather wild ride, which was full of tension and horror, I did have more than one unanswered question. The open rather than shocking conclusion, came with a great parting line. I will suggest exercising some foresight when selecting this novel, it may not appeal to everyone, but if you do chose to take a chance on Baby Teeth you will want to discuss it!
Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage was published on 16th July 2018 by Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage visit here.
*I wish to thank Penguin Books Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.