Friday, July 20, 2018

BABY TEETH :: Zoje Stage

I double-dog dare you to read Baby Teeth if you have a small child/children at home, because you may end up tempted to drop them off at the nearest fire station and run for the hills. This psychological family drama with flavors of The Omen and We Need to Talk About Kevin is a creep-fest of epic proportions.

Seven-year-old Hanna has had CT scans and MRIs, but the tests provide no medical explanation for her muteness. Hanna's mother, Suzette, is at her wit's end; on top of Hanna's issues, she's dealing with her own chronic illness (Crohn's disease), questioning her mothering skills (based, in part, on her own dysfunctional relationship with a narcissistic mother), and missing her working partnership and prior close relationship with husband Alex.

That alone might be enough for an interesting family drama, but Zoje Stage isn't content with "interesting" and ratchets the issues up to a super sinister level. Because while Hanna may be mute, her devious and intelligent mind is working a mile a minute, all in furtherance of her adoration of Alex and desire to be rid of her mother so she can have her father to herself.

While Hanna may be non-verbal, she isn't void of means to communicate. Her violent barking and growling behaviors have been successful in getting her kicked out of every school where Suzette tries to enroll her; and of course no babysitter will ever come back. Despite her knowledge that the silence is driving her mother crazy, Hanna eventually starts talking. But even that is part of her diabolical plot--she speaks only in front of Suzette and in the threatening voice of  Marie-Ann Dufosset, a young French girl from the 17th Century who was accused of being a witch and subsequently burned at the stake.

Stage does a fantastic job alternating between the points of view of Suzette and Hanna. I'm not sure which was more uncomfortable--being in Hanna's head as she plots against her mother or in Suzette's as she tries to figure out if she's losing her mind or Hanna really is as evil as it appears. Each narrator makes the reader question her reliability, making the trip to the ultimate showdown all the more suspenseful.

There are times when Hanna's behaviors feel above her age capabilities on a mental and/or physical level, but I found these instances easy to overlook I was so weirded out yet entranced by Hanna. The worse she gets (or the better she gets at being worse), the more the cycle between the three characters spins in intensity. Stage really pushes the boundaries of deviance, particularly in a child, and I was impressed by that since it was certainly taking a risk. For me, the risk paid off, I loved every squirmy minute of Baby Teeth.

STREET SENSE: If you like to be creeped out, this is the book for you.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: I picked several for this section, because I didn't want to lose track of the fact that this book is not just sinister fun, but is also thoughtful and well-written.

Hanna kept her words to herself because they gave her power. Inside her, they retained their purity. She scrutinized Mommy and other adults, studied them. Their words fell like dead bugs from their mouths. A rare person, like Daddy, spoke in butterflies, whispering colors that made her gasp.

*  *  *

Sometimes Mommy was an octopus with a sharp blade in each hand. It seemed fair to Hanna that when Mommy bruised her heart, or made her feel all icky crumbly inside, that she should be able to hurt her back.

*  *  *

“For fuck’s sake, Hanna. Why don’t you ever listen to me?” The girl stood there, arms loosely at her sides, considering her mother. Then her eyes rolled back until they were solid white. Dead nothingness in the sockets. “Because I’m not Hanna,” the girl whispered. [IS THIS AWESOME, OR WHAT??]

*  *  *

She could kill Hanna. No, she couldn’t. She could. She’d never. She might.

*  *  *

Now, the Hula-Hoop lay forgotten and Hanna stood just on the other side of the glass, inching along as Suzette sprayed and rubbed, stepped to her right, sprayed and rubbed. With a certain glee she was able to spray it on Hanna’s face without actually damaging her. But a sense of disappointment remained that with all her effort and rubbing, she couldn’t make her daughter dissolve with the dust and oily smudges.

COVER NERD SAYS: I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw the cover. At this point I can't even recall if candy or a lollipop has anything to do with the plot, but it just doesn't matter. The simple image that can be seen as an innocent sucker or the detritus from an act of violence fits this book like the fabulously eerie cover it deserves. A+

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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