A sizzling novel to read in the heat, when you’re hungry for life, Jessica Andrews’ Milk Teeth explores what it means for women to take up space unapologetically and allow their needs – and desires – to be met.
I remember speaking to Jessica Andrews on a patchy phone connection from my living room in London one cold, dark January night in 2020. It seems like a long time ago now. At the time the author of Saltwater, which I had read and loved, was living in Barcelona, working on her next novel. She couldn’t tell me a huge amount about it then, saying only that it was about ‘hunger and denial, or desire and denial’, and that it was still in a state of flux, and so to say more would risk fixing that which was not yet fixed. Milk Teeth is the transporting, visceral novel that resulted from that time, and hunger/desire/denial are the words that, were you asked to distill its essence into just three, would still accurately capture its main themes.
Milk Teeth moves between London and Barcelona, with segments also set in the North of England and Paris, following an unnamed narrator as she embarks on a new relationship, and grapples with her inhibitions and the parameters, real or perceived, that her upbringing and life experiences have imposed upon her. She meets her (also unnamed) partner in London, follows him to Barcelona, but interspersed with the chronology of this are memories of her earlier life, growing up in the north east of England to a backdrop of diet culture and celebrity ‘heroin chic’, moving to London, then becoming a nanny in Paris, scraping an existence and skipping meals.
Lots of the themes of Saltwater are present in Milk Teeth. Growing up as a female, finding your space; the constant worry that you are taking up too much of it, and the things that, as a young woman, you do to ensure you don’t, the things you do to ensure you are diminished, smaller, more palatable to those around you, contorting yourself to fit the patriarchal norms that for the most part inform the structures we inhabit. Not knowing what you want, or, even if you do, not being able to articulate it. Milk Teeth explores what happens when the protagonist presses up against those norms, begins to dismantle all her learned behaviours, all her shame, and begins the process of articulating her desires. It explores what happens when she is confronted with a relationship and an existence that allows her to unfurl, to be vulnerable, to grow into a space in which it is okay to feel hunger and sate it, okay to have needs and expect those needs to be met.
Similarly, the theme of class and regional identity is strong. I refuse to perpetuate the stereotype that all female written fiction is autobiographical – of course it isn’t. But, and Andrews and I talked about this back in 2020, most writers are to some extent drawing on their lived experiences in one way or another, and Andrews is clear that this is something she wants to openly lay claim to and not shy away from (she said of Saltwater “I felt like I couldn’t talk about class or disability or gender or any of those things if I didn’t take ownership over the parts of the story that are true”). What Andrews does with Milk Teeth, as she does in Saltwater too, is give us a protagonist who is clearly from a region, the north east, the same region that Andrews herself is from, and make that very real. She gives a backstory that has strongly conditioned how the character is now, how she interacts with the world, particularly the parts of the world that are new to her – house sitting in a rambling house in Highgate, experiencing new sights and tastes in European cities.
Place is an important component of this novel. Andrews’ prose is rich and lyrical, layered thickly with simile and metaphor. It transports you fully to the various locations it is set in, covering the five senses with detailed descriptions until you are immersed in the grimy pubs and packed nightclubs of London, the pokey attic bedrooms of Paris, and, most vividly I feel, the hot streets and tiny tapas bars of Barcelona. Of all the senses, it is taste that is evoked the most, descriptions of food a sustained motif throughout as the protagonist battles with her own discomfort with eating, the learned feeling that to restrain oneself is commendable, and grows to embrace a different relationship with appetite, through food cooked for, and by, her new partner, and through the offerings of Barcelona – small plates of tapas, tinned peaches on the beach, breakfast pastries, barbequed calçots at a barrio street party.
Milk Teeth is a book to read in the heat, a book to read when you are hungry. Hungry for food, hungry for life. I read it in the middle of May, a whole summer, the first ‘proper’ post-lockdown summer, ahead. It made me glad to be alive, glad to be here after all we have witnessed and experienced since that January night in 2020. Glad to be alive, and hungry for more – more travel to European cities, more delicious food, more books to be read, more of this terrible-wonderful-unpredictable life. Milk Teeth made me hungry for it all.
Jessica Andrews’ Milk Teeth is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 21st July and is available to pre-order now.
Feature image Jessica Andrews taken by Seth Hamilton.