Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
A battle of wills between mother and daughter reveals the frailty and falsehood of familial bonds in award-winning playwright and filmmaker Zoje Stage’s tense novel of psychological suspense, Baby Teeth.
You’ve never met a kid as twisted as Hanna Jensen. Maybe you think you have. Books (and films) like William March’s The Bad Seed don’t really compare, and I may even prefer to hang out with Damien from The Omen.
From the outside, the Jensens (pronounced Yensen) are a beautiful family: Suzette, Alex, and of course, seven-year-old Hanna. Alex is an architect specializing in green materials, and Suzette is an interior designer turned stay at home mom. They live in a gorgeous and sterile home that Alex designed—one that hides a dark secret: Hanna. You’d think school would be a reprieve for Suzette, but Hanna has been kicked out of several, so Suzette is forced to homeschool her. To make matters worse, Hanna is nonverbal and likes to make things as hard as possible for her mother. It’s not that she can’t talk, it’s that she just prefers not to. Also, it annoys Suzette, which is a bonus for Hanna. Hanna delights in torturing her mother and just about everyone else, except for her beloved Daddy. Here’s an example of a night with a babysitter, who annoyed Hanna when she asked her mother—after hearing she didn’t talk—if she was potty-trained:
She sprang up and jumped over the back of the couch, racing to get upstairs.
“Changing into your pj’s?” Abha asked.
Hanna nodded, grinning, so excited to execute her plan.
She was already half out of her dress before she got to her room. She threw it on the floor.
A minute later, she stood in the threshold of her bathroom, panties at her feet, and started wailing. For good measure she let out a shriek or two, in case Abha couldn’t hear her over the television.
The startled babysitter bumbled up the stairs, and Hanna made sure to keep crying, even though she wanted to laugh, as Abha took in the problem: the puddle of pee and pile of poop she’d left on the floor.
“Oh no, did you have an accident?”
Hanna nodded, still crying.
Hanna is utterly delighted with herself and ends the night by getting a hold of Abha’s hair, pulling it as hard as possible, and barking at her like a dog. Charming, isn’t she?
Meanwhile, Suzette—who suffers from Crohn’s disease and, after multiple surgeries, must deal with a special diet, among other things—must also deal with the horror that is Hanna while Alex works the day away and comes home to a little girl that jumps into his arms and smiles and coos at him adoringly. Alex has a blind spot when it comes to Hanna, but author Zoje Stage doesn’t go completely Gothic: Alex actually believes his wife when she tells him the things Hanna does, but Suzette desperately wishes Hanna would slip up and show her father some of the horrid behavior that she shows everyone else.
Suzette hopes she can get a school to take her, but Hanna is an expert at either putting school officials off immediately or getting herself kicked out. And now, she’s starting to do things at home that are downright dangerous. It doesn’t help that Alex is reluctant to believe that his daughter might have issues that need more help than a normal school can give.
Hanna was asked to leave Green Hill after five weeks. Suzette and Alex sat before a small panel of teachers and administrators and were informed that Hanna just wasn’t emotionally ready for kindergarten. Her “inability to interact” proved to be “more troubling than anticipated.” Alex, especially, grew offended as the meeting deteriorated and the teachers’ polite facades fell away. He’d never seen Hanna “snarl aggressively” and couldn’t believe their accusations that she “hid toys just so the other children couldn’t use them” and “broke things to be spiteful.” They feared that eventually Hanna would hurt another student—“We suspect her of setting the cafeteria trash bin on fire”—at which point Alex demanded a refund for the remaining tuition and stormed out.
The story is told in alternating third-person narratives between Hanna and Suzette. Suzette’s passages show us a woman who has vowed to be everything her mother was not. Due to fraught childhood involving a mother who was distant and seemingly uncaring—and a horrifying struggle with Crohn’s that certainly didn’t help—Suzette tries her best to be a caring mother to her only daughter. But, as every parent knows, it’s not always that simple. Hanna is a monster, and at times, Suzette even blames herself for not being a good enough mother. In stark contrast, Hanna’s passages are disarmingly upbeat as she plots and plans against her mother and cooks up more diabolical and increasingly dangerous ways to terrorize her.
When Hanna—who is quite adept at using the internet—decides she’s going to start claiming she’s a girl named Marie-Anne Dufosset who lived in the 17th century and was burned at the stake as a witch, she actually starts to talk. But she only does so in front of Suzette—and only to say creepy things. Suzette has just about had enough.
Stage does a fantastic job of steadily increasing the tension to a fever pitch, and Suzette is completely self-aware of her situation. She knows that their lives are the perfect setup for a horror movie. She even mentions to a doctor that she’s afraid no one will believe her and that Hanna will eventually drive her insane. Readers won’t have trouble believing in that possibility. This super creepy kid and her tormented mom will keep you up way past your bedtime.