I feel conflicted about the debut novel from Zoje Stage, Baby Teeth.
Suzette, the mother, is raising Hanna, a nonverbal child who may be a bad seed. The UK version of this book, in fact, will be released in 2019 under the name Bad Apple.
Hanna spends her days thinking up devious plans to get at her Mommy. In Hanna ‘s ideal world, Mommy would be out of the picture and Hanna would live blissfully alone with her beloved Daddy. Alex, the father, means well but is willfully obtuse to Hanna’s misdeeds and the toll they ‘re taking on Suzette.
Similarly, Suzette’s ideal world would include Alex and not Hanna. Instead of personifying and solidifying their love, their child divides them.
As Baby Teeth progresses, Hanna chomps away at Suzette’s sanity. At one point, she half suspects that Hanna is a witch.
It’s a brilliant look at a dysfunctional family. The power dynamics between mother and child are brow-furrowingly complex. Suzette’s push/pull between loving and loathing her daughter gives her character an interesting ambiguity.
But the book also demonizes mental illness.
The fact that the child is seven years old, nonverbal, and has been ejected from every school because of extreme behavior makes it strange, verging on unbelievable, that the parents are only now seeking a psychiatrist. Shouldn’t the MRI, speech pathologists, and behavioral intervention come much much sooner?
Suzette does show emotional immaturity. Perhaps she could get a pass, considering her own mental and physical traumas. But Hanna has encountered enough concerned adults in her life that it seems reasonable at least one of them would have called in the experts.
But the mental illness seems significantly downplayed. The book presents Hanna as a bad seed with evil intentions against her mom. What I saw was a girl with undiagnosed psychosis, desperately in need of therapy, medication, and support.
Maybe this was Zoje Stage’s intention. Maybe she wanted us to puzzle through it and find the codependence that shuts out a girl in need. But maybe not. In either instance, it presents an interesting, layered read.
Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Published July 2018
St. Martin ‘s Press