“You can’t expect the world to be exactly the same as it is in books.”
Skalde and her mother Edith live cut off from the world by fog and a collapsed bridge. Civilization has also collapsed, and they live on the edge of a small loosely-knit group in the so-called ‘territory’. Edith arrived as an outsider, so they are tolerated, yet treated with disdain and suspicion by most of the few people they have any contact with. Skalde loses herself in books until the day she starts losing her milk teeth and finds a girl in the forest called Meisis. Slowly, she finds the strength to rebel against her mother’s neglect and to question the rules of the society she finds herself in.
This is a claustrophobic work. As a child, Skalde rarely leaves their house and garden. The novel feels particularly relevant in the Covid era, as this kind of situation now feels all-too-familiar to all of us. The world beyond the river is a scary, dangerous place that presses at the edges of their small world. It’s a reminder that we are living in an increasingly atomised age — an era of isolationism between countries rather than internationalism, sparked by the international shift to the right, the feeling of some leaders that ‘my country is an island’ — and catalysed by Covid.
In the ‘territory,’ suspicion of outsiders takes hold in Milk Teeth, echoing the eagerness of some to make certain groups responsible for ‘spreading’ new variants in the Covid era. Neighbours judge neighbours, people are cast out for reasons as trivial as having red hair or failing to lose their milk teeth. The setting — dense fog followed by blazing heat in an indiscernible survivalist purgatory, only adds to the novel’s cloying nature. I read this while quarantining. In some ways, it was the best situation in which to read this book, if completely unnerving.
Milk Teeth is difficult to categorise. In some ways, it is a traditional survivalist novel: the narrator rears rabbits, plants potatoes, makes her own soap. In other ways, this book’s eccentricities combine to make a work that is singularly strange: its chapters are entirely inconsistent, the narrator is highly unreliable, and the reader is left with the feeling that everything is distinctly off-kilter, left wondering if anything described is even ‘real’. The narration and prose are dreamlike and topsy-turvy, the women live in a bubble within a closed-off society. Edith never seems to eat yet always paints her lips a new colour, lays in the bath for hours or days on end, and wears a black rabbit skin coat in summer. She feeds her dogs tree bark. To use the vocabulary of Stranger Things, it’s as though they are stuck in the ‘Upside Down’.
Much of the novel is left unexplained. I wondered why society had collapsed: why those who founded the territory fled over the bridge and then blew it up behind them. I wondered where Edith came from, why the trees don’t fruit and the rabbits die. I feel there could be some deeper warning here about the imminent climate emergency we are all facing, but this isn’t a book to read if you’re looking for answers rather than more questions. The novel is short, and the short chapters create an almost breathless reading experience
The fragmentation of this novel also adds to its mystery. Some chapters are no more than short scraps of memory. Time doesn’t seem to move in any logical way. Sometimes the novel’s fragmentation is a drawback, as the plot seems to meander in the second half of the book without really building to anything. Skalde seems to speak directly through the reader via the medium of cryptic notes written to herself, which appear in block capitals. I particularly enjoyed these sections — Jen Calleja has constructed sentences with a beautiful cadence in English:
“HOW LONG CAN I STAND UPRIGHT WHEN HOLDING UP MY OWN BODY BRINGS ME TO MY KNEES TWICE AS HARD”
The novel and some of the block caps notes are reminiscent of Cormack Mccarthy’s The Road in its brutality and graphic focus on telling a survival story via the senses:
“I DREAMED THE SMELL OF GUNPOWDER. THE LAND HAS BEEN LEFT FULL OF HOLES. THESE VOIDS ARE MY DOWNFALL.”
This book isn’t for the fainthearted, or someone looking for an uplifting message. Like The Road, this book is dark, heavy, and throws light on the worst facets of the human condition: fear, hatred, mistrust, suspicion, selfishness and neglect. There is violence, but I would say this novel is harrowing on a more psychological level. One of the most tragic themes is the broken relationship between Skalde and her mother Edith. The arrival of Meisis only seems to heat tensions in the household as Edith plays mind games, ignoring and then favouring Meisis over Skalde. The group shun Meisis as an outsider and initiate a campaign of slowly increasing terror and intimidation against them.
Edith, Meisis and Skalde become the town scapegoats and all problems are laid at their door, including the disappearance of a child. It’s a reminder that, in a time of crisis, we often seek to impose meaning on madness, we want to find an easy solution, to make it make sense. Someone or something has to be to blame. But prejudice and finger-pointing only ever serve to endanger us further and tear us further apart. Milk Teeth isn’t a comfortable read, but it’s a timely book. It’s the kind of novel with a lingering taste, one that weighs on the soul. It’s the kind of book that asks for introspection, makes you take a deep look at yourself and wonder aren’t we all just as bad?