Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Baby Teeth book cover
Baby Teeth
by Zoje Stage
St. Martin’s Press
July 2018
304 pages

** Review copy borrowed from the library **

DescriptionSweetness can be deceptive. 

Meet Hanna.

She’s the sweet-but-silent angel in the adoring eyes of her Daddy. He’s the only person who understands her, and all Hanna wants is to live happily ever after with him. But Mommy stands in her way, and she’ll try any trick she can think of to get rid of her. Ideally for good.

Meet Suzette.

She loves her daughter, really, but after years of expulsions and strained home schooling, her precarious health and sanity are weakening day by day. As Hanna’s tricks become increasingly sophisticated, and Suzette’s husband remains blind to the failing family dynamics, Suzette starts to fear that there’s something seriously wrong, and that maybe home isn’t the best place for their baby girl after all.

Review: This novel should come with a warning label because it will create an experience of being so thoroughly immersed in your feelings of disturbance, even sticking the book in the freezer will not help you. Let’s just say I haven’t felt the need to sleep with the lights on in a long time, but I’m still shaking off the feelings of being so thoroughly having the living daylights scared out of me.

I knew going in that this novel was not going to be a walk in the park, but I had no idea what I was in for. I finished it in two sittings, racing toward the end, as if because I myself felt I was in dangerous from the child in this book, which I know sounds ridiculous at first glance, but bear with me. This is a child who does and thinks some of the most viscerally disturbing things you will ever encounter. Yes, she has an Electra complex, but let’s just say that barely scratches the surface of the overall picture of just…pure evil that she exudes, but in a way that is real, visceral, psychologically explained as best as possible, but it will terrorize you as a reader.

I am still trying to wash off the marks that this book imprinted under my skin.

It’s rare for me to find a book that touches on so many deep nerves inside of me and feels like it was written with me in mind, as if the author had a telepathic lens and decided to personalize a horror experience that would dig under my skin, and under my fingernails, and pull non-stop. Now, with this in mind, if the book had been written by a less skilled author, it would have come across as comedic. Like Stewie Griffin in “Family Guy,” who spends many of the early seasons plotting to “kill Lois” his mother. Baby Teeth deftly avoids that territory.

I feared for Suzette every single moment of this book.The novel intricately reveals her struggles with Crohn’s disease, mental health issues, the emotional exhaustion she battles with on a constant basis, her fixation on cleanliness as a way to process her emotions, but also, perhaps most terrifying at all is that this book is not a demonic possession storyline. While that certainly would have been a far easier explanation, perhaps even providing some relief to the reader in the sense that we would think “Oh, so it’s the demon that’s making this child do all these horrific things” it would also have been a cop-out in my humble opinion. Emotional horror that can’t be explained away by magic or demonic entities is far more terrifying when done right.

Alex, Suzette’s husband, was a character I felt strongly for, but part of that included my empathy at Suzette’s pain and struggles related to him. They punctuated me throughout the book as they related to his decisions. I pictured him as Alexander Skarsgård, because he’s Swedish and tall and kind of had the same emotional vibe as the actor. There is an incredible amount of tension in this book that rests on him seeing that his daughter has serious problems and refusing to acknowledge them, but also, not realizing the amount of emotional manipulation that runs through his family like a raging undercurrent.

There are words I can use like “terrifying” and “horrifying” to describe how scared reading this novel made me feel throughout, and some of Hanna’s sections made me have such a visceral reaction, I can’t even accurately convey them.

I’m still processing how frightened and disturbed this child made me feel. I had similar experiences reading Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which also deals with similar subject matter. Baby Teeth explores a danger much more targeted toward Suzette. As a result, it is that much more visceral and makes that much more of an impact. This novel cut home so much deeper for me, it may as well have carved into my chest and exploded, demanding to be experienced, not just read.

To sum up my reading experience, I think it would be more accurate to say that I did not finish this book but rather, this book finished me.