Milk Teeth, Helene Bukowski (The Unnamed Press 978-1-95121-335-0, $26.00, 223pp, hc) September 2021. Cover by Chrissy Kurpeski.
Helene Bukowski’s Milk Teeth, which has been beautifully translated from the German by Jen Calleja, is an enigmatic narrative about three women that succeeds as much because of what’s on the page as it does thanks to the questions left unanswered at the core of the story. Atmospheric, dark, a bit depressive, and somewhat claustrophobic, this is a novel that comfortably inhabits the interstitial space between literary fiction and dystopian narratives.
Skalde lives with her mother in an old house and writes her thoughts down on small pieces of paper. The lines she writes often seem like random thoughts, but they help her make sense of the world around her and allow her to keep some of the most pressing questions at the front of her mind. Edith, Skalde’s mother, doesn’t eat, spends most of her time locked away in her room, takes incredibly long baths, is secretive about her past, and is prone to violent outbursts of anger. The two of them float around the house like separate planets that rarely come into contact, and quiet and solitude are their only constant presences. Outside, the world is a place known only as ‘‘the territory,’’ a small place cut off from the rest of the world by a river whose bridge was blown up by the residents long ago. However, Skalde and Edith’s isolation is even more extreme than that of everyone else in the territory because Edith wasn’t born there. She showed up one day and was taken in by Skalde’s deceased father, so she was always a shunned outsider. Despite this, they are able to get by, thanks to the rabbits they breed and a little bartering Skalde does with their neighbors. Their lives are rough and solitary, but their status in the community worsens when Skalde finds a young girl named Meisis and takes her in. Besides being an outsider, which is bad enough, Meisis is also a redhead, and the people in the territory want her gone and soon start blaming her for everything that happens in the territory. When the daughters of a man vanish, everyone blames Meisis, and they want to kill her, but Skalde manages to get them some time: if the young girl’s milk teeth fall out soon, that will prove she’s a normal human and not the monster they claim she is.
Milk Teeth is dark. The world, which used to be cold, is now unbearably hot. The woods surrounding the territory are devoid of life, and the earth yields less and less with each passing day. In fact, there is so little game in the woods that the neighbors throw a party on the rare occasions someone spots a deer out there. The residents are secretive and whatever lies beyond the limits of the territory is a secret, just like the reasons why they blew up the bridge and became separated from the rest of the world. The dystopian atmosphere is exacerbated by the attitude of the residents, the way Edith is shunned, and, later, the hostility they show Meisis.
While this is a story about a woman dealing with her strange mother and then trying to save a child, there are deeper themes throughout the narrative that make it a standout. The first is the concept of being an outsider and how isolation can breed hatred toward anyone seen as a stranger or from a different place. The second is the strain of a ruptured mother-daughter relationship. While they live in the same house, Edith and Skalde sometimes spend weeks without seeing or talking to each other, and when they do, Edith is often cold, derisive, and hostile. In one particular scene, Skalde believes they are sharing a moment, so she reaches out and touches her mother. In response, Edith stabs her in the hand with a knife and then tells her to put pressure on the wound before walking away.
Besides the mother-daughter relationship and the way we treat others, Bukowski also explores the way extreme climate change impacts people’s behavior. While the fact that everyone tries to exchange products with everyone else shows that they are working together and collectively trying to push forward, there’s a quiet desperation growing as game vanishes, the oppressive heat refuses to end, and the land and trees continue to diminish their productivity. People are desperate, and their desperation sours their mood and affects the way they treat each other. Sadly, while this novel is clearly fiction, it is also a very possible look at what could happen in the near future if climate change continues to go the way it’s going.
Milk Teeth is Bukowski’s debut novel, but it is written with a powerful, sparse prose that could easily belong to someone with many books to their name. This gloomy tale invites us to consider the way we treat each other in dark, desperate times, and that makes it not only memorable but also required reading during a time of imposed isolation.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
This review and more like it in the May 2022 issue of Locus.
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