Helene Bukowski's harrowing debut novel invites readers to a strange dystopia.
In Helene Bukowski’s Milk Teeth, a debut novel of stark images, “scorched” birds plummet from the sky and plants are “bleached by the sun.” Forests are eerily still after “the great death of the animals,” when desperate quadrupeds sought safety in ocean waters, their carcasses washing ashore “among the pieces of driftwood and plastic.” Bukowski published Milk Teeth in her native Germany in 2019, the year she turned 26, and as we see in Jen Calleja’s nimble and intelligent new translation, she has a flair for evocative scene-setting and some well-articulated concerns about the planet. These qualities fuel a brisk plot in which Bukowski’s heroines are under siege on multiple fronts, fending off murderous bigots and scrounging for sustenance in what appears to be an irretrievably broken world. This is a scary book—and an impressive one.
Milk Teeth focuses on a few agonizing months in the life of our narrator, a young woman named Skalde. She and her mother Edith live in “the territory,” a sparsely populated area in which nature is slowly erasing the remnants of capitalism. This process is epitomized by another of Bukowski’s haunting images: an abandoned high-rise, its windows smashed and its lobby annexed by birch trees.
Skalde and Edith’s house—an eccentric, book-filled place where one might find firewood in a dresser drawer—is stocked with crunchy twice-baked bread, preserved fruits, fuel, and various “provisions” that they gather from the woods and toss in the back of their pickup truck. In Bukowski’s vision of a not implausible near-future, all forms of media and long-distance communication have collapsed. If government of any kind still exists, it’s beyond reach. Skalde, Edith, and the others in the territory endure vast climactic fluctuations—debilitating fog has given way to a heat so extreme that nobody goes outside in midday—but the scientific institutions that might’ve explained and combated these deadly shifts appear to have been destroyed as well.
Bukowski doesn’t coddle the reader; aside from the obvious environmental degradation, she declines to explain exactly what happened that left her characters in such difficult straits. “Some say there was a fire. The dryness of the forests,” Skalde tells us. “…Others claimed the process had been creeping. Bit by bit, everything crumbled to dust.” Many have died. A relative few fled “across the sea.” Skalde and Edith had considered the latter option, but someone blew up the bridge that linked them to the rest of the world. The anonymous vandal’s aim was to prevent outsiders from reaching the territory. Skalde, Edith, and a handful of neighbors are stranded in the forest, maybe for good.
This is all a skillful job of worldbuilding, but it’s just a prelude to a development that threatens to plunge the territory into violence.
Exhausted by the myriad hardships that she confronts every morning, Edith has become mercurial. Her petty arguments with Skalde escalate; she even tries to end one by using boiling water as a weapon. Skalde, in turn, spends her time in the woods, where she’s made a small hideout from fallen branches; inside, she naps on a bed of moss. One day, Skalde finds that her bespoke “den” is being used by a particularly vulnerable squatter—a preadolescent girl whose hair is unmistakably “red, as if ablaze.” This is a problem. Many in the territory, motivated by what appears to be a mix of naivete and superstition, believe that people with red hair are evildoers who should be chased away or killed before they ruin everything for the area’s longtime residents. The girl, we learn, is Meisis; she has no parents and can’t (or won’t) explain how she ended up in a place that shuns her. Skalde takes her home. This infuriates Edith, who knows that Meisis’ presence is likely to make them targets. Skalde focuses on “the situation I found myself in in that moment. To wake up next to the child and hold her hand, as if I had never done anything else.”
The intolerance of redheads, an allegory for any number of historical and contemporary instances of discrimination, is the book’s least subtle—and least original—component. In the 2010 short film “Born Free,” a 2010 collaboration between the British hip-hop artist M.I.A. and French director Romain Gavras, boys and men with red hair are rounded up, bussed to a desert, and executed. M.I.A. has said the film was inspired by the plight of the Tamil ethnic group during the 26-year-long Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in 2009. But if Bukowksi’s allegory is derivative—a charge that can be leveled against any number of metaphorical representations of bigotry—it remains a crisply effective component of the story. When Meisis alights in the oft-grim territory, her hair is a vivid, unmistakable contrast to her surroundings—amid the “greyness and austerity” of abandoned buildings, she’s a dazzling bas relief come to life, a vision of beauty and innocence that a loud, dangerous group of local bullies cannot abide. Meisis’ plight needn’t be interpreted as having a specific meaning—it’s an evocative parable that reminds us of the damage wrought by ignorance, jingoism, and incendiary falsehoods.
In the face of this simmering hostility, Skalde and Meisis press on with their routine. They tend a potato patch before noon, when “the heat outside was still bearable,” and they butcher rabbits for meals. They hang their handwashed clothes on a line “stretched between the plum tree and the cherry tree”—an example of the many vivid images that Calleja, Bukowski’s translator and a past finalist for the International Booker Prize, renders in prose that’s simultaneously plain and poetic. The attempt to forge a refuge for Meisis flounders when angry neighbors, who’ve already threatened to harm the girl, come to believe that she’s to blame for the recent disappearance of two young women. The neighbors can’t explain what the child might’ve done, so they don’t try—to them, it’s enough that she has the red hair of “a changeling.” According to pernicious legend, changelings never lose their milk teeth. It’s on this basis that the neighbors issue a threat: if Meisis, who’s about six years old, doesn’t start losing her baby teeth within a few weeks, they’ll kill her. Skalde is left to devise a humane solution to an appalling ultimatum. Should she, Meisis and Edith flee? Try to negotiate a truce? Lock the doors, retreat to the basement, and live off preserved food? None of these options are appealing.
Bukowski doesn’t explicitly answer any of these questions, a fruitful narrative choice that imbues the action with an ambient, unsettled menace, which stayed with me in the hours and days after I reached the end of this economical book. In one tense scene, Edith reminds Skalde that in years past, she’s suffered numerous “injuries” inflicted by violent neighbors; Bukowski elaborates, but only a bit, describing an incident that left Skalde’s bloody nose dripping onto her pickup truck’s hood. Her decision to let our imaginations fill in the blanks is evidence that she trusts her readers. It’s difficult to distinguish oneself in the crowded field of postapocalyptic fiction, but Bukowski’s dystopia is at once vivid and ominous. Like a horror-film director who knows that the suggestion of menace is scarier than a river of blood, she recognizes that restraint is her ally. Moreover, when she asks us to imagine a planet that’s been rendered barely livable, one where society itself has been obliterated, she recognizes that it’s a thought exercise we’re all prepared for. It comes too easily.
Animal suffering and climate migration, bigotry, and borders—in Milk Teeth, Bukowski confronts daunting issues but never gives in to despair. Ultimately, her debut succeeds because it’s populated by characters who feel authentic—people who are duly frightened yet heroically normal in the face of cascading crises. They eat blackberries till their lips turn purple, take long baths, and eat dinner in silence, their dogs snoozing “peacefully under the table.”
Meisis loves the forest, feels safest there. So does Skalde. Often, they wander into the woods and relax in the shade beneath a big evergreen. “Sometimes,” Skalde says, “we would lie for hours between the pines and not move. It almost felt like we would sink into the landscape.” With the palette Bukowski has given us, the reader can see this rich tableau; it’s composed of red hair, green moss, brown tree bark—an afternoon of tranquility in an age of ruin.
© 2021 by Kevin Canfield. All rights reserved.