Wendy Erskine has the saturation slider of her mind moved to maximum by Jessica Andrews’ latest novel.
‘Mimosa trees burst into fireworks. Hot pink bougainvillea grows over buildings like a rash. Cacti flower in orange and yellow as people shed their layers like falling petals’: read Milk Teeth and you may find that it’s an experience akin to having the hue and saturation slider of your mind moved to maximum. It’s a book drenched in light, colour and gorgeous intensity: the sun is ‘bleeding violet’ and motes dance like glitter. The sky is the colour of watermelon flesh and rushes of bubbles in water are ‘cubic zirconia.’ London, seen from a plane, looks like the jewels of a broken necklace. Andrews paints a rich, gilded, intoxicating world, and one of intense, evocative synaesthesia. Figs are ‘soft bruises.’ Skin smells of ‘meat and fur’ or, on another occasion, ‘creamy and bitter, like burnt milk.’ The feeling of desire ‘fills the house with a crimson smell, raw with blood and salt.’
It’s a senuous, sensual world and so lush. But ultimately, you could ask, to what end? Is this just an upmarket spa experience of a literary kind, where we bathe in richly evocative description? Well, no. This novel by Portico Prize winning Jessica Andrews is, for all its physical detailing, actually interested in things that are beneath or beyond surfaces. Milk Teeth’s epigraph is a quotation from a taxi driver, London, May 2019: ‘You’re so young. You can eat the whole world, if you want to.’ This deftly encapsulates so many of the novel’s concerns: youth, maturity and appetite — for food, for bodily pleasures, for freedom. But while the taxi driver makes it all sound enviably easy, the novel is about difficulties.
The unnamed narrator, originally from Bishop Auckland in County Durham is, at the beginning of the novel, in the tentative early stages of a relationship with an unnamed, you. She eventually follows this partner when he moves to Barcelona. The present tense narrative is intercut with vignettes from the narrator’s past which run from childhood to an adult life lived in Paris and London. These vivid, powerful sections of remembrance are in no way simply backstory. Why privilege the present over the past when dealing with fictional characters? Although in real life, we live in the moment, these people on the pages are as real and vital in the pasts as they are in their presents. And so, our narrator’s experience before a high school prom is as vivid and significant as the latest account of her life in Barcelona.
Asked at the very beginning of the novel if she has any resolutions for her twenty-eighth year, the narrator states that she does and it’s to be ‘unashamedly herself.’ Yet within a page or so, this ebullience has dissipated. The narrator is flushed with panic and doesn’t know what to say when her partner asks what she would like him to do. This response reoccurs in the novel, when the narrator is asked what she wants in life by her partner or say, her friend Rosa. I don’t know, is the answer she gives. I don’t know.
As in Saltwater, Jessica Andrews’s Portico prize-winning first novel, the body is central: its appearance, its feel, its boundaries. At one point, the narrator observes herself in the mirror in an empty flat. She notes how the body looks so calm on the outside: ‘no scares or cuts or bruises, no evidence of the hot red discomfort that grew between my bones.’ She wonders how she would look if there were less of her, if her body would fit her better if there was more of an empty space around her. Then suddenly, the scene is externalised. Her circumspection is interrupted by the builders who have been watching her all along. Hey sexy! Sexy lady!
Interiority is conveyed in a powerfully physical way: ‘I carry the thrill of you inside me like something dangerous, a pan of boiling water, threatening to spill.’ When the narrator’s mother reassures her that she doesn’t have a bad bone in her body, she disagrees: ‘I could feel it, black and rotting, digging into my belly…I knew I had to conceal it, to cover it up and bury it inside where no one else could see.’
Freedom is defined by the narrator as the ‘privilege of forgetting your body.’ This does happen at times in, for example, the easy movement of dance beneath a glitterball: ‘the music is elastic and we throw ourselves at it. We are boundless and mercurial, a shifting silver grey.’ Yet, the need to regulate the body, its demands and limitations, the way it is viewed by others is returned to again and again. In a brilliant vignette, the young narrator is taken to get a bra. She hates her ‘soft and ungainly’ breasts. The assistant in the shop declares that ‘all young girls have big boobs nowadays’ and she attributes this to the hormones that are in meat. This section elides into another, focusing on the narrator’s friend Emma, whose dad works in an abattoir. Emma has glossy hair, long neon pink fingernails, a fat ponytail. Emma’s mother says that it’s all the protein. The narrator crosses her arms over her breasts, ‘imagining chemicals coursing through hooves and fur then splitting on [her] tongue.’
Consumption is so key. The descriptions of food are lavish and mouth-watering, yet in the paradoxes so typical of this novel, eating is problematic for the narrator. Andrews is brilliant on this — so nuanced, sharp and sad. The narrator notes that when she moved to London, ‘cultured, glamorous people’ talked about food all the time and she didn’t share their language. It was so different from her world ‘where women shared Slimming World solidarity, talking in Magic Knickers and bathroom scales.’ As a teenager, the narrator says that beauty, to her and her friends, was ‘silky and spangled and a chance of something better.’ It was also thin, as the pictures on their walls of Alexa Chung and Kate Moss attested. As an adult, she is constantly aware of her own consumption. I can’t remember reading another novel that deals in such a perceptive and profound way with the complexities of who we are and what we eat.
There is enormous discipline to this novel in terms of utter unity of action. All narratives of the past and present inform the central consideration of the narrator’s means of regulating and embracing, appetite and desire. Dialogue too is so trained on these subjects that when someone mentions the far-right in Europe and the history of Catalan anarchism, the topic seems almost otherworldly. That’s not to say that this is a narcissistic or narrow novel. It is anything but. It’s intense, focused and deeply serious in what it has to say about young women, self-worth and identity. The characters are beautifully drawn. The unnamed boyfriend is thoughtful, kind, loving, but not perfect. The narrator is funny, passionate, observant, hard on herself. It is also a brilliantly hopeful book.
‘Milk Teeth’ is out now, published by Sceptre.