By Zoje Stage
Literature and life have bestowed upon us some very disturbing children, the likes of fictional Rhoda Penmark (The Bad Seed) and Damien Thorn (Omen), and real-life killers Mary Bell (England, 1960s), Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden (Westside Middle School Massacre, Minnesota, 1998), and Jasmine Richardson (Canada, 2006). Contemplating the idea of children murdering children and adults will alarm anybody, but to believe that your own darling seven-year-old daughter is attempting to murder you, well that’s the stuff of horror stories. And it’s the plot of Zoje Stage’s very good debut psychological thriller, Baby Teeth. It’s the kind of novel that is sure to give you the shakes, especially if you have little ones running around your house.
Stage tells the story by alternating between daughter Hanna and mother Suzette, and in her very capable hands the method proves especially effective both in maintaining a very high level of tension and moving the plot along at a quick pace.
Hanna holds a special affection for her father, a young architect busy in his own firm and gone for most of every day. She’s quite the good little girl when daddy appears. For her mother, though, Hanna holds nothing but contempt and eruptive hatred. A cunning child with an above average IQ, she reads, researches, and gives thoughtful consideration to the various attacks she launches against her mother, each one escalating until she goes too far in her zealous quest to push her mother out of the house, or life entirely.
Suzette, for her part, is a conflicted young mother. She has endured a difficult life, suffering for a longtime with undiagnosed Crohn’s disease, and with an inattentive and self-self-absorbed mother. Once diagnosed, life improved for her and became nearly perfect when she met her husband Alex in college. Her fears will probably feel familiar to many readers, among them that she might be alienating her husband and fostering the bad behavior in Hanna. Her moods swing from fawning over her child, to viewing Hanna as a rival for Alex’s attention, to wishing her child dead, making us a bit suspicious of her, especially early on. At heart though, less readers get the impression she might be a really bad mother (a thought she tortures herself with regularly), Suzette hold the best interest and health of her child foremost.
Nerve shattering might be the best way to describe the sensation you’ll feel throughout the novel. So, then, why the “until” reservation? Because the ending will feel like a letdown to some readers, this one included. However, you’ll also recognize that given Suzette’s and Alex’s characters, Stage has written a very logical ending, and maybe sets us up for a yet more terrifying sequel. Imagine a ten or twelve-year-old Hanna, closer to the typical age of children who kill.
All in all, though, you’ll find Baby Teeth a really terrific and terrifying psychological thriller. Stage has authored a novel you really can’t put down, no matter how much you’d like to escape the tension. w/c