Fangs For The Memories: A Review of Lynsey May's Weak Teeth...
Every so often a book is written which seems uncanny in its familiarity. One where you feel the narrative, and narrator, speaks directly to you. Lynsey May's debut novel Weak Teeth had just such an effect on me. It's a book which examines mental health, familial disputes, generational conflict, dealing - or not dealing - with grief, bad breakups, working an unsatisfactory job, fixating on social media, and living with troublesome teeth.
Ellis's boyfriend Adrian tells her he's leaving (or, rather, he tells her to leave) and her world falls apart rendering her homeless and pretty much penniless as Adrian refuses to entertain the idea that she is due any money after living together for years. Returning to stay with her mother at the home she grew up in, a situation which draws the ire and exasperation of her strong-willed sister Lana (although she is always in or near a state of fury), Ellis has come to hate the job she now has to stay in, becomes obsessed with Adrian's new girlfriend Sally, has suspicions about her mum's new and younger boyfriend (who happens to be a dentist, adding to Ellis's disapproval), and to top it all her teeth are betraying her once again.
Ellis doesn't realise how vulnerable she is until things start to unravel, but her story is a reminder how close many of us are to dire straits. We can all suffer from a false sense of security, and that belief that all is well when it's not can quickly catch you unaware. May makes Ellis's worsening situation completely believable as she becomes more desperate for a change in fortune, with no idea as to how to make that happen.
At the heart of it all is Ellis and her family failing to deal with the death of her father. It may feel to Ellis that the world is against her but a lot of what she experiences, and Lana's anger, and both sisters feeling betrayed by their mother, are rooted in grief. As a result they take it out on each other in different ways, from passive aggression to straightforward aggression, and tend towards making poor decisions in haste which only exasperates the family's downwards spiral. Then there is the inevitable effect on their other relationships, with friends, boyfriends, husbands and partners all suffering in some form or another.
There is so much to identify with in Weak Teeth as all aspects of Ellis's life are rendered beautifully, even when her actions are perhaps unadvisable. Her relationship with Adrian becomes toxic and destructive as he moves from lying through gaslighting to outright hostility as she refuses to do as he demands and basically go away. Her Facebook stalking of Sally may make you cringe but you understand why she does it. Office work - or rather, the avoidance of work - with all the petty politics and posturing which accompanies it has rarely been so well-observed, and the familial dynamics which move from love to hate and back again, sometimes in the same sentence, also ring true.
The title is key and Weak Teeth brings tooth decay into literature in a way which is visceral and, for some of us, all too recognisable. There is the fear that accompanies the word 'locum', the frustration at not being believed when you know something is wrong, the pain that accompanies you constantly until the situation is fixed - and the selfish belief that no one has ever felt pain like this! You don't own it, it owns you. Even then you have come to believe that any relief will only be temporary. Teeth (particularly losing them) are often symbolic in folklore and dream theory, and you can read similar into Weak Teeth. However, you don't need to look for hidden meaning. Ellis's problems are utterly believable and authentic. This may seem a strange thing to say, but the depiction of someone who suffers as Ellis does almost brought me to tears.
Weak Teeth marks the arrival of an individual and original new voice in Scottish writing, a book which leaves you wanting more. But while it is exciting to consider what comes next, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Right now, this is a novel which deserves to be read far and wide. It will engender empathy among all readers to a greater or lesser degree. For those of us with their own weak teeth there's just that something extra.
Lynsey May will be in conversation with Jenni Fagan for the launch of Weak Teeth at The Portobello Bookshop on Tuesday 9th May, 7-8pm