Baby Teeth, by Zoje Stage

Short Take:  A beautifully written but not-very-unique take on the “disturbed child” story.

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*Note: I received an early advance copy of this book for review.*

I may not be the most qualified person to write this review. See, I like kids (quite a lot, actually), but to me, they are ALL insane. A clear danger to themselves and others. They ALWAYS want to touch the hot stove, to see if baby sister’s eyes will pop out like Mr. Potatohead’s, and to find out once and for all if the lights on the Christmas tree taste as good as they look. It’s damn near impossible to keep them alive for any length of time, and even harder to maintain your own sanity while you do so. So psychotic kids, to me, read as “kids in general, any and all kids.”

Fortunately, there’s a lull between the “Agent of Chaos” toddler stage and the “I’m Invincible And Will Try To Prove It” adolescent stage, and for most children, the ages between five and ten are the calmest ones. It’s when parents can start reasoning with them, instead of just hanging on for dear life and waiting for the next calamity.

That is, unless the child in question is Baby Teeth’s Hanna, the precocious, mute six year old monster locked in a dance of mutual destruction with her mother, Suzette. You see, Hanna wants Alex, her daddy, all to herself, and the only way to make that happen is if Mommy disappears. Suzette and Hanna are our narrators, alternating back and forth and giving us their perspectives and a lot of richly worded backstory on how exactly they got to this point.

Mad props to the author – Hanna is a great creation. She’s smarter than any of the adults around her give her credit for, willful enough to withhold her voice for her entire life (until she decides to scare the you-know-what out of Suzette with a few creepy words), manipulative enough to act like two entirely different children depending on which parent she’s with, and emotionless enough to scare even a jaded old horror reader like me. Her inner thoughts are richly drawn, her imagination breath-taking.

Suzette, on the other hand, is where Baby Teeth fell apart for me. One of the central plot points is Suzette’s Crohn’s disease, and the horrific struggle she went through as an adolescent with an abusive mother who wouldn’t get her the treatment she needed. We’re told (SO. MANY. TIMES.) how much her husband prizes her strength and resilience, but we see none of that. She is completely helpless when challenged by Hanna. It makes sense to a degree – she’s afraid of becoming her own mother, and afraid that if she tells Alex about all of Hanna’s tricks, he won’t believe her, and it will destroy their marriage.

But seriously, you’re telling me that an upper middle class, stay at home mom has never heard of a FREAKING NANNY CAM??? I feel like roughly 95% of the awful things that happened in Baby Teeth could’ve been avoided if Suzette had said “you know, Hanna doesn’t act right, and I want people to believe me so I can get her help, if only there were some technology available that would record her actions so that I could show them to her father, or a therapist….”

That’s pretty typical of horror protagonists in general, though, they always go in the basement alone or answer the phone or whatever. It’s dumb, but many fans have learned to settle for some dumb if it means they will get a new scary story.

And that right there is where the second shoe falls. Because for all the advance buzz, all the revved-up reviews, and the undeniably poetic style of Baby Teeth, it’s not very original at all. I kept waiting for the Gone-Girl-esque twist, the OMG DID THAT JUST HAPPEN moment, and it just never came. There are some shocking moments, to be sure (Hanna’s brilliance and creativity in torturing Suzette are downright impressive), but many of them were pretty clearly telegraphed.

Baby Teeth is yet another by-the-numbers entry in the Disturbed Child playbook: Kid is a monster. Adult who could fix it doesn’t believe it. Kid does something said adult can’t ignore. Screechy climax. Sequel setup. The end.
The Nerd’s Rating: Two Happy Neurons (and a potato, because you never know when you’ll need a new best friend).

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