Baby Teeth, by Zoje Stage

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Zoje Stage, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In her debut novel, Zoje Stage has made quite a name for herself. Exploring some dark and disturbing areas of the parent-child relationship, the reader is forced to see a seemingly calm little girl turn against her own mother. Hanna Jensen appears to be quite the average four-year-old girl, with one glaring exception; she does not speak and never has. Countless tests and examinations have left her parents, Alex and Suzette, baffled, as there is nothing physical wrong with her. With her muteness comes the added issue that she is unable to acclimate into any scholastic situation, leaving Suzette to homeschool Hanna. While there is no verbal communication, Hanna’s comprehension and written word is advanced for her young age. What no one has been able to see is that Hanna has another side, a darker side that is focussed on tearing Suzette down in a well-planned manner. Hanna internalises her struggle, but is happy to show her mother an evil side and purposely sabotage any progress that is being made. What begins as simple defecating on the floor turns to barking and, eventually, full-on violence in a school setting. While Suzette tries to come to terms with this, Alex is oblivious and sees only the princess-like girl that Hanna presents on a nightly basis. After Hanna tips her hand and shows off an alter-ego, Suzette is no longer prepared to go at this alone, but Alex remains uncertain that Hanna is to blame for anything. Hanna sets out her own plan to get rid of Suzette once and for all, allowing her to have Alex’s attention forevermore. While Suzette knows it is coming, she is helpless to slay the monster before her, seeing it has taken the form of sweet Hanna Jensen. Stage weaves together quite the disturbing tale here, pitting parental instinct against base survival. Fans who enjoy a diluted psychological thriller may enjoy this one, as its presentation has rounded edges and light spine tingles.

When this novel was recommended to me by a friend, I wanted to give it my full attention, not only because of its subject matter, but also because it would fit perfectly into a reading challenge requirement. It would seem that Stage has found herself with a great deal of Goodreads activity where reviews continue to grow on both sides of the fence. I can see where both the five- and one-star folks are coming from, having been able to situate myself somewhere in the middle. The characters found herein are perfectly crafted and complement one another so well. Hanna is that young child who has a love of her father and inherent dislike of her mother, partially because there is a need to share, but also due to the fact that Suzette is her primary caregiver. Hanna manifests her dislike from disobedience through to full plotting of injury and death of the woman who has nothing but confused love for her. As the story progresses, Hanna’s character turns darker, especially with the revelation of an alter-ego, though things always bounce back when Alex is in the room, which only perpetuates the tug-of-war between the parental units. Suzette, on the other hand, is a woman who has suffered much medical and emotional turmoil in her life and has had to wrestle with a mother of her own who could not care about her. Suzette seeks to be a better mother and person, but Hanna seems to bring out the worst and they battle regularly. While Suzette may seem the paranoid one, her significant time and experiences with Hanna fuels this push to have her daughter examined by professionals, while Alex seeks to protect his offspring. Many of the secondary characters work well here, especially in peeling back the onion and seeing just how destructive Hanna can be, even if her father refuses to see it. The story itself is well-done, choosing to alternate chapters from the perspective of Hanna and Suzette. One could see where things were going, but it was a matter of how swiftly they would get there and how outlandish things could get by the end. Where I struggled with this novel was the intensity level. True, not all books have to have “psychopathic serial killers” to be successful, but I felt Stage wanted to unveil the truly demonic side of Hanna on a regular basis, but diluted it for reasons unknown. I wanted to be shocked and feel Suzette’s pain, but it almost seemed as though some of the narrative chose to gloss over things, lessening the impact. Still, for a debut novel, Stage kept me curious, especially with the ongoing symbolism that the attentive reader will gather as they forge ahead in this piece. Well constructed and I would surely give Zoje Stage another try, hoping that she and her publisher take some of the criticisms that are coming out, to heart.

Kudos, Madam Stage, for this very interesting debut. I can see much potential within the genre and hope you’ll keep writing. Your fan base is sure to grow exponentially, especially with all the popularity this book is receiving online.

This book fulfils Topic #4 (Title/Author Beginning with Q, X, or Z) of the A Book for All Seasons (Equinox #2) Book Challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: