Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

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Genre: Horror

Format: Hardback novel

Baby Teeth is another novel I kept seeing at the library and floating across my facebook feed in various bookworm groups. I love books about creepy kids, so I was excited to read it. I had no idea what I was getting into. More than just a story about a creepy kid, Baby Teeth is a condemnation of modern American parenting and an intense examination of the circumstances that create monstrous children–who will grow to be monstrous adults–and the responsibility borne by the child, her parents, and even society at large.

The POV characters in Baby Teeth are Suzette and Hanna Jensen, a young mother and her seven-year-old daughter, whose narratives alternate to tell one story. The only other significant character is Suzette’s husband and Hanna’s father, handsome Swedish architect Alex Jensen. (I recommend picturing Alexander Skarsgard for Alex and Natalie Portman for Suzette. You’re welcome.) Before she was a stay-at-home-mom, Suzette was a talented and successful interior designer who helped her husband grow his business before abandoning that role to raise her daughter.

Suzette is double-cursed by a past history of traumatic parenting–her own mother was a hyper-critical, dismissive narcissist–and a traumatic illness, Crohn’s disease, which she manages through surgical intervention and medication. Throughout the book, as she makes decisions and tries not to make the same mistakes her own mother made, Suzette is haunted by these traumas. She faces the additional struggle of loneliness and boredom often experienced by SAHMs while their children are young, the feeling of missing out on the wider world and creative opportunities while she’s rearing ungrateful offspring. And finally, she is further traumatized by the bizarre and often violent behavior of her emotionally disturbed daughter, who refuses to talk unless she’s channeling a hateful, murderous ghost witch.

It may sound like Suzette is the protagonist and Hanna is the antagonist in this novel, a la The Omen or The Bad Seed, but what makes Baby Teeth such a powerful, memorable novel is that it’s not that simple, as revealed in the chapters told from Hanna’s point of view. At first, I sympathized with Suzette, a severely ill woman stuck at home with a delinquent child no school will accept. Through Suzette’s eyes, Hanna is a tiny sociopath who hides her bad behavior for Daddy and unleashes her full fury on Mommy at every opportunity. But gradually, seeing things from Hanna’s perspective, it becomes increasingly clear that Suzette isn’t innocent in the creation of this hateful monster, and neither is her husband. Often, their attempts to improve Hanna’s behavior only lead to further strife and alienation, and eventually the question becomes whether anyone can help Hanna become a child who can love and be loved in return. And if not, what will her parents do?

Ultimately, Baby Teeth is about inherited family trauma. The lack of support and options for children and their families coping with these issues might be shocking for people who have never had an emotionally disturbed child, but of course I’m a middle school special education teacher, so I see this all the time. The Jensens have the benefit of money and excellent medical care–now, imagine a family with these same problems, without a successful architect’s salary and benefits. For me, the true horror of this story lies not in the story of an innocent mother whose daughter eventually plots to kill her in a tense climax, but in the continual cycle of trauma and neglect that created this situation and guarantee that, for families like the Jensens, the cycle will perpetuate. Author Zoje Stage has created a book that is terrifying not because of some unfamiliar monster, but because it’s a deeply familiar reflection of parenthood in America.

Final Rating: 5/5 stars

You can read more of my book reviews on Goodreads. If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying my new fiction collection or backing my Patreon. I’m not currently accepting books for review, but I will consider recommendations, so comment away! Thanks for reading! 🙂

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