Weak Teeth is a first novel set in middle-class Edinburgh. It is a light, agreeable novel with credible characters such as you might meet in any coffee bar, and this, like the setting, is less usual than it used to be. That’s to say, there are no witches and no extravagant flights of fancy. It’s about quite ordinary things going wrong and people having to try to sort them out. It is also about the importance of family and friends, also, less usually, about teeth and dentists.
Ellis (Elly), the heroine, has recently started a new job, but she has a troublesome tooth and a dentist appointment tomorrow. Meanwhile she is preparing supper for her boyfriend, Adrian. They’ve been together for some years living in what had been his flat. Now, on page 2, he tells her that, though he didn’t mean it to happen, he has “met someone else”, and gives her a week to clear her things out of the flat. She is shocked, all the more so when he says she surely saw it coming. Within the week she moves back to live with her widowed mother in what had been the family home.
This is a very nice opener. It invites questions and therefore the reader’s curiosity. First pages, first chapters, are always important, because they establish the mood of the novel. Some would-be novels never get beyond that first chapter because, having written it, the author realizes they don’t know where these opening pages that they have written with satisfaction and pleasure are going. Any author may have more abandoned first chapters than finished and published novels. That pleasing chapter may lead only to a dead-end alley. Happily, Lyndsey May’s isn’t like that. It opens the door to a story and, eventually, to her heroine’s moral education – just as a Jane Austen novel does.
Of course, Ellie is a wounded innocent, also an ignorant one. Ignorant because unobservant; she has taken her relationship with Adrian (a suitably unlikeable character) for granted. Allied to her tooth trouble, she is drenched in self-pity and finds even usually simple decisions like getting out of bed in the morning difficult. Pride or shame, or merely a natural disinclination to be seen as a victim, someone to be pitied – prevents her from telling work colleagues what has happened. So she invents things, eventually telling a lie which has shameful and distressing consequences.
Meanwhile she is back in the family home being cared for by her mother – and usually rejecting the care like a surly teenager – and being nagged and preached at by her married sister, a mother of young twins who is almost always angry. All this is convincing – May is good on family relations. There is some comedy in these too, when the daughters begin to fear that their mother may be about to embark on new experiences rather than being content with the role to which she has been assigned. This leads to some agreeable comic misunderstandings.
Then there are the teeth. Perhaps there is a bit too much about the teeth. Yet it’s natural that there should be, for concern for the teeth, thinking about the teeth and fearing the necessary visits to the dentist occupy and disturb Ellie’s mind. If it wasn’t for the teeth, her confidence might not have been so easily shattered by Adrian and she might not have made such a fool of herself. So, yes, all the tooth stuff rings true; toothache distorts judgement, fosters self-pity.
I picked up this novel with no great enthusiasm, more in the mood of “if the literary editor wants it reviewed, I’d better get on with it.” Happily, a few pages changed my mood and mind. It is an agreeably light novel which is also a serious examination of human relationships. There is nothing flashy about it; instead it treats the everyday world of common experience as serious matter for fiction. This is refreshingly unusual today.
Weak Teeth, by Lynsey May, Polygon, 259pp, £12.99