A review of Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz
Simon Pulse, 2013
by REBECCA, January 14, 2013
Rudy: a lonely, thoughtful guy who is torn between loyalty to his family and the companionship of a mysterious fishboy . . .
Teeth (Fishboy): a sad but strong loner (by necessity), Teeth doesn’t know his own story until Rudy shows up.
Dylan: Rudy’s little brother who is sweet, weird, and dying.
Diana: A strange shut-in, she lends Rudy books, and occasionally more.
Ms. Delaney: Diana’s mother, her family discovered the island’s magic fish, and her history is complicated.
Rudy & Dylan’s parents: they mean well, but are totally consumed by Dylan’s health problems.
When Rudy leaves everything he knows to move to an island whose magic fish might be able to cure his brother’s cystic fibrosis he knows things will never be the same. What he can’t know is that he’ll meet someone who changes everything he knows about himself . . . and presents him with a life and death dilemma. How will Rudy choose between two people he loves?
Emblazoned on the (absolutely gorgeous and apt) cover of Teeth is “miracles always come at a price,” and for once that isn’t just a dramatic tagline. For Rudy’s family, the miracle is an island where the local Enki fish have magical healing properties when ingested by the ill. The price? Well, that’s part of the complexity of Teeth‘s mystery. Rudy’s five-year-old brother is dying from cystic fibrosis and moving to the island is his last hope, but even if people are healed by the Enki fish, they mustn’t stop eating them or their powers will wear off. And, so, sixteen-year-old Rudy finds himself in a cold, eerie house on the edge of the ocean, every iota of his family’s energy and resources bent toward keeping his baby brother alive. Rudy draws and runs and reads, but he has no contact with the outside world, no future with his family since he’ll leave the island to go to college and they’ll stay with his brother, and, until he meets Fishboy, not even anyone to talk to.
When he first sees Fishboy (who, he learns later, goes by Teeth), Rudy is coming home from the market.
I turn away from Ms. Delaney’s mansion and that’s when I see him, sitting on a rock with a piece of seaweed hanging out of his mouth. . . . And before I notice anything else about him, I realized he’s about my age. And then the rest of him hits me: webbed fingers, the scrawny torso patched with silver scales, and a twisted fish tail starting where his hips should be, curling into a dirty fin. A fish. A boy. The ugliest thing I have ever seen. Can’t be real. . . . He gives me a funny smile and a small wave. And then he pushes off the rock and dives into the water. I find him with my eyes a few seconds later. He’s swimming out past the surf, hard. I see his fin hitting the water behind him with each stroke, setting up waves that push him farther and farther away from the shore.
He can’t be a mermaid, because he has to come up to breathe. He’s stopping to pant. He’s tired. Mermaids sing underwater. Mermaids can’t get tired. Because mermaids aren’t real. And then he’s gone.”
Teeth lives in the ocean around the island and doesn’t even know how old he is or where he came from. He learned English by listening to the fishermen and the islanders talking, so there are many things he doesn’t know the words for and replaces with “whatever,” which is a really charming character trait, because it both frustrates Teeth that he can’t fully express himself and also allows him to seem uncaring about things that hurt him. And a lot of things hurt him. He was abandoned in the sea as a very young child and had to learn to survive; he is the only one of his kind, so he’s been very lonely; and the fisherman who sell the Enki fish routinely rape and abuse him.
Goodreads describes Teeth as “a gritty, romantic modern fairy tale,” and I can see why they do: Teeth is a moody, elliptical book with a toe each in the oceans of magical realism and fantasy. But “fairy tale” does justice to neither the complexity of Hannah Moskowitz‘s characters nor the ethical ambiguity of its murky waters. Rudy loves his brother, but resents the loneliness of the island; he wants to save his brother by procuring the Enki fish for him, but doesn’t want to harm Teeth once he learns of that procurement’s effect on him; he’s only ever been attracted to girls, but finds that he is drawn to Teeth in a powerful way that he doesn’t fully understand.
In a blog post I wrote over the summer about YA books that feature the ocean, I mentioned that I wished there were enough dark YA books about the ocean to facilitate me naming the sub-genre “oceanic gothic.” Well, I submit that Teeth is precisely the kind of book that belongs in that category. Awful things happen in this book, but the mood is so dreamy and, well, oceanic, that it seems as if Rudy and Teeth are experiencing them from underwater. I am a huge obsessoid about the ocean (hi, Pisces here) and I definitely think there is an aesthetic and a mood that seem to fit with the darkness of the ocean. This is a tidal, salt-rimed, shivery, rusty fishhook of a book that I couldn’t help but be pulled under by. And I loved every minute of it. It’s heartbreaking and creepy and sad, but all its feelings issue from a kind of exhausted or cold-numbed place, so it’s all a little detached in a way that dulls what might otherwise have been a rather melodramatic edge.
I won’t say much more about the plot because it’s a beautifully crafted mystery that unfolds slowly, but Moskowitz’s prose is simply lovely, by turns lyrical, cutting, and funny. Here is how Teeth opens:
At night the ocean is so loud and so close that I lie awake, sure it’s going to beat against the house’s supports until we all crumble onto the rocks and break into pieces. Our house is creaky, gray, weather stained. It’s probably held a dozen desperate families who found their cure and left before we’d even heard about this island. We are a groan away from a watery death, and we’ll all drown without even waking up, because we’re so used to sleeping through unrelenting noise. Sometimes I draw. Usually I keep as still as I can. I worry any movement from me will push us over the edge. I don’t even want to blink. I feel the crashing building up. I always do. I lie in bed with my eyes open and focus on a peak in my uneven ceiling and pretend I know how to meditate. You are not moving. You are not drowning. It’s just the rain. It’s your imagination. Go to sleep.
That pounding noise is just pavement under your feet, is sex, is your mother’s hands on your brother’s chest, is something that is not water. It’s not working tonight. I sit up and grab my pad and pen to sketch myself, standing. Dry. Sometimes the waves hit the shore so hard that I can’t even hear the screaming. But usually I can. Tonight I can, and it hits me too hard for me to draw. I need to learn how to draw a scream.”
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
Teeth asks important and compelling questions: “How much could you hurt one person you love to save another?” “When is weakness unforgivable?” “How long should you sacrifice your own needs for someone else?” “Is living a long life really the most important thing?” These questions are, in general, subtly posed, but Teeth isn’t an overly polished book, and that’s a good thing, I think. It’s raw, it’s desperate, it’s desirous, and those are its strengths. Hannah Moskowitz has written a top-rate story with complex characters and an intriguing mystery, but the real star of Teeth for me was its mood.
There are elements I wasn’t crazy about: Diana Delaney, the girl Rudy meets and begins quasi-canoodling with, is undeveloped (whether intentionally or unintentionally) and therefore functioned mostly like a plot device for me—although of what I shall not say. Relatedly, Diana and Rudy’s discussions of books felt realistic, especially in the context of bored teens trapped on an island, but the books they discuss felt, in some moments, jarringly contemporary enough to wrench me out of the murky anywhere of the island (“This isn’t Looking for Alaska,” Diana says). In other moments, iconic books they discuss hang unpleasantly heavily over the rest of the narrative, overemphasizing themes that would have been quite clear enough without them. These were the only false notes for me, however.
One of the things that I most appreciated about Teeth was the slow and subtle build of Teeth and Rudy’s relationship. There is nothing overtly sexual or romantic about how Rudy sees Teeth, mostly because he’s never thought of guys in that context. But, little by little, as Teeth becomes more and more important to Rudy he begins to feel passionately for him. Teeth’s fishboyness could have easily been turned into a clunky and over-played metaphor for feelings of isolation by queer teens, but it is so much more interesting that he is actually half fish.
All in all, a captivating and thoroughly original read. Vive la Oceanic Gothic!
procured from: I received an Advanced Reading Copy from the publisher (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. Teeth is now available.
I can’t honestly think of anything that I’ve read that is actually that similar to Teeth. In terms of other oceanic gothics that I want to read, there is Night Beach by Kirsty Eagar; as for other merpeople books that look interesting, there is Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama . . . But, really, the only thing that comes to mind as being somewhat similar in mood is Margo Lanagan’s very excellent Tender Morsels.
Any thoughts about readalikes? Tell me in the comments!