365 Books in 365 Days – Episode 182 by Annie Walton Doyle

Milk Teeth by Jessica Andrews 

“I want to grow bigger than my shame, to have mass and identity, to leave marks and indentations, to prove my own existence.”

Hunger is so prominent in Jessica Andrews’ Milk Teeth that it becomes bigger than just a theme and more of an all-pervasive, visceral feeling. It’s a hunger for everything: food, of course, but also experience, status, love, and life. “At first, pushing away my hunger made more room inside me to feel everything else. I wanted color, danger, and beauty, things that felt removed from the daily grind of eating, sleeping, and my new job at the pub. I shrank my needs for food, safety, and comfort in pursuit of poetry and magic.” 

But alongside this insatiable hunger, there’s also the flip side: guilt. Our narrator openly admits to struggling to nourish her own body and treat herself with kindness, and this extends further, too. When she feels the potential for fulfilling romantic love, her instinct is to destroy it. “I want to make things better, to recapture the gold I let slip through my fingers, and I also want to push you further away, to take us over a cliff just to hear the shatter.”

Milk Teeth is a fairly anxious read, as the narrator struggles with how to satisfy her various hungers without triggering the self-loathing that inevitably follows pleasure. It’s told in vignettes, moving between two disparate timelines that come together at the novel’s close. We see snapshots of our narrator’s life as she grows up in working-class Sunderland, moves to London and Paris working various soul-sucking jobs, then falls in love and moves to Barcelona with the sole purpose of trying to make the relationship work.

Because we see the narrator through so many disparate stages of her life, we feel that we understand her well. We can see why something that happened in childhood is causing her to react a certain way in her adult relationships. This makes us feel both sympathetic to her and sometimes rather frustrated, as we can feel we are better at understanding her than she is herself. “I think about all the years I have struggled to articulate myself in my own language, pushing my words into my body instead.”

We also see a change in our narrator that seems linked to the natural processes of aging. She looks back at how invincible she used to feel and cringes, wanting to “stub out our cigarettes, grab us by the wrists and tell us that our bodies are valuable in ways we do not know.” 

She is making peace with the fact she can’t continue to live in this chaotic and untethered way. “When we were younger, the nights were limitless, as though we were invincible, running into the unknown future and maybe now I am here. I am getting older and there are fewer possibilities available to me, or maybe there were never as many possibilities as I first believed.” She notices she is becoming more risk-averse, unable to jump off a bridge into a lake. “I wonder what has changed, why I am no longer drawn to the outside, stepping away from the edge.”

Our narrator’s changing attitude toward her body comes out of necessity. She has to learn to be much more careful in some regards, and much braver in others. Physically, she knows her body needs kindness, care, and nourishment. “I needed to learn how to look at the woman inside me without flinching, learn how to feed her and care for her, to recognize her as me.”

But how to take care of her emotional body is a trickier question. It’s easy to say: ‘love fearlessly,’ but this sort of vulnerability remains one of the most difficult feats of being a person. Nonetheless, our narrator seems committed to trying, which is more than many of us can manage. “My body is a desperate animal, throbbing with constant need, but perhaps I could learn to be unashamed of needing and wanting, to see it as living instead.”

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