Books: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

If any of you guys are fans of “killer kid” horror, then you’ve probably heard of the book Baby Teeth, which was Zoje Stage’s debut novel and got all sorts of positive buzz when it was released in the summer of 2018. I noticed from a quick perusal of reviews that it seemed somewhat polarizing with readers; I guess I can see why, but I unreservedly loved it, though it’s definitely not for everyone. Much like in my previous discussion of Kanae Minato’s Confessions, I’ll reiterate that I tend to enjoy really nasty stories in which horrible children are the antagonists (probably because I’ve never been a big fan of actual children, and I like seeing my biases reinforced, haha).

So in the novel, we have an upper-middle-class family who seem, at first glance, to have it all. Hubby Alex, a hot Swedish architect, is a very avant-garde, green-movement-hipster type man who is pretty awesome and good-hearted and very supportive of his wife, Suzette. Suzette herself also has artistic tendencies, and worked with her husband as an interior designer until they had a child. The couple are very much in love, and live in a spectacular, modern house designed by Alex himself.

There are some trials, of course. Suzette has suffered from Crohn’s disease for most of her life, and is in pain a great deal of the time; managing her food intake is also a constant hassle, but at least she has an understanding partner to help her out.

But then little Hanna is born. At first, the kid seems as normal as can be, and it appears that the family unit is now blissfully complete. But when the child hits about three years old, her parents begin to notice that she isn’t really meeting the milestones that she’s supposed to; in particular, she either can’t or won’t speak at all. Concerned, Suzette and Alex take the little girl to various specialists to learn whether Hanna’s muteness is physical or psychological, and if there is something that can be done about it.

The child doesn’t seem to have any physical impairments that would prevent her from talking, so doctors advise her parents just wait it out; maybe Hanna will speak when she’s ready to. Still worried but with few other options, Alex and Suzette then send Hanna to preschool, at which point some deeper issues begin to manifest themselves. The little girl, you see, gets kicked out of preschool after preschool, usually for violent outbursts against the other students. It gets so bad that the parents have basically exhausted all educational possibilities in the area, and Suzette is forced to quit her job so she can stay home with Hanna and home school her. This is taxing enough, but Suzette’s Crohn’s disease is progressively getting worse as well, and her medication isn’t really working the way it should, so she’s dealing with frequent pain, the loss of her career ambitions and social outlets, and now having to spend all day every day with what is, in essence, a demon child.

Now, I don’t mean demon child literally—this book isn’t supernatural at all—but this kid does some really diabolical shit in this book, up to and including punching a baby. I’ve seen the novel compared to Lionel Shriver’s book We Need to Talk About Kevin (which was adapted into a film in 2011), The Bad Seed (both book and film), or that movie The Good Son from the 1990s starring Macaulay Culkin. If you like any of those books or movies you will probably enjoy this one as well; it’s essentially a tale exploring the prospect of a parent dealing with a child who is not only a terrible person, but also actively hates them and wants them dead.

The narrative style of the novel is interesting, because it goes back and forth between Suzette’s perspective and Hanna’s, and although some criticisms of the book that I read complained that the Hanna sections seemed too mature for a seven-year-old, I didn’t really find that to be the case. My parents ran a daycare when I was growing up, and believe me, I met a few seven-year-olds who would absolutely come up with some shit like this kid does.

As a matter of fact, I thought Zoje Stage did a phenomenal job balancing the more Machiavellian thought processes of a seven-year-old psychopath with the more childlike beliefs and ideas that a normal kid of that age would have. Hanna as a character is described as very intelligent, manipulative, and intensely disturbed, but she also sincerely believes, for example, that she is either channeling the spirit of, or reincarnated as, a French witch who was burned at the stake during the European witch panic. She is further convinced that this witch is helping her plot her evil deeds, and that curses actually work.

In addition, although she is frighteningly astute and resourceful, she is still just a kid, and some of her fiendish plans don’t go the way she thinks they will, mainly because she has an erroneous concept of how her mother and father perceive her, and also holds to some aspects of magical thinking (for instance, she believes that by chopping off her mom’s hair, she will make Suzette ugly and Daddy won’t love her anymore and will only love Hanna).
The child does, however, have enough acumen to play her mother and father off of one another; around her sweet, supportive father Alex, she acts like a perfect angel, and plays the victim whenever Suzette tries to explain to him what she’s really like. She essentially wants her father all to herself, so wants her mother out of the way permanently. Because of this, when she and Suzette are alone, she is absolute hell on wheels, and several times straight up attempts to kill her.

The book is a very nail-biting, psychological horror that just slowly builds and builds, ramping up the tension at a steady pace. It isn’t filled with big action set-pieces or anything like that, but I found it really easy to get lost in it, reading with mounting horror at every new scheme this kid cooked up. The battle of wills between Hanna and her mother was just chilling to read about, and was made even more so because the dad, Alex, was so clueless through no real fault of his own (other than not wanting to believe that his adorable daughter is a monster).

Suzette had this massive burden on her already because of her chronic illness and her partial loss of identity, and it was just tragic that she then had all of that compounded by this hell-spawned crotch-fruit. She also had some issues with her own mother, and blames herself somewhat (as many mothers do) for her child’s atrocious behavior. It actually takes until about the midpoint of the book that Hanna does something so awful that Alex finally has a come to Jesus moment and gets on the clue bus, at which stage he and his wife begin to work together to deal with this odious little brat.

I also quite liked the ambiguity surrounding why Hanna was the way she was; the complexity of how the whole issue was handled was very well done. Is there something Suzette could have done differently to make Hanna come out normal, or was Hanna just born bad? In the sections written from Suzette’s perspective, the reader goes a lot into the mother’s thought processes, and I found it really heartbreaking, as Suzette questions herself constantly, wondering if she’s blowing things out of proportion, wondering if her interactions with Hanna cause the child to act out.

If you’re considering having a kid and are on the fence about it, this book will absolutely make you want to have all of your babymaking parts removed forever, so in that way it can serve as a really low-cost method of birth control. It’s a pretty messed up but still fascinating and fairly grounded look into the repercussions of evil when it comes in a kid-sized package.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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