Rudy’s life is flipped upside-down when his family moves to a remote island in a last attempt to save his sick younger brother…Then he meets Diana, who makes him wonder what he even knows about love, and Teeth, who makes him question what he knows about anything…He soon learns that Teeth has terrible secrets. Violent secrets. Secrets that will force Rudy to choose between his own happiness and his brother’s life. (Source: Goodreads)
TEETH is the second book by Hannah Moskowitz I have read this year, the first being the utterly superb NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED, and in a way, they have similar narratives of a main protagonist who feels isolated and alone who connects to another person through their shared struggles; with NOW, it’s Etta and Bianca’s eating disorders and drive to be successful in theater, while in TEETH, it is Teeth and Rudy’s loneliness and identity crises. Rudy struggles with living in a family with a sick brother and no longer having a life outside of taking care of him; Teeth struggles with his very sense of who he is, a scarred and patchy fish boy with a horrifying origin.
TEETH also reminds me a lot of Aaron Stormer’s SPONTANEOUS, which I’ve reviewed here, as a text that it took me a good chunk of time to get into, but once I got into it, man, I got into it, and nothing else mattered. The more time you spend with Rudy and Teeth and the other island inhabitants, you more you get to care about what they are going through. Everyone on this island is unwell, but not everyone is actively dying from it.
This is a very visceral, emotionally open book. There are vivid descriptions of physical injuries, of the gutting and eating of fish, of emotional and physical abuse, and sexual abuse is a major, undeniable thread of the story. Even through Rudy’s point of view, the mundane turns potentially, soul crushingly tragic: the sound of the ocean at night makes him think their house will crumble into the surf, every action his physically fragile little brother Dylan takes sends Rudy into a thought spiral that ends in death.
Which isn’t totally unfair—Rudy seeing death around every sharp corner—as he and his family live in a place where everyone eats the local fish to hold onto life as long as possible; the fish have a mystical healing property unique only to their breed and it is never explained why, although in this story it really doesn’t matter. It’s definitely one of those stories where some things are explained, some things are not, and not for readers who want every single thing spelled out.
One of the biggest strengths of TEETH lies in its dialogue, which is something Moskowitz always does so well but in this book, it becomes even more important than before. For Rudy, he finds it hard to put into words how he feels, and it’s only after spending time with Teeth that he finds it easier to express his own emotions, to his family and to himself. When he tells his father why Dylan makes him so scared, you can see how hard it is to verbalize things but also how important it is to get every word right, no matter how long it takes.
Teeth himself has had to teach himself human speech from listening to the fishermen who hunt the Enki fish, so his dialogue is not only coarser but filled with vocabulary holes. The narrative uses this gap in knowledge as a tool for levity as well as a tool for emotional weight, and neither usage make Teeth’s misunderstanding of Rudy’s speech seem fake or forced. Teeth’s response to Rudy saying “I am so pathetic” is one of the tiny gut punches the dialogue delivers throughout the book. Also, I would imagine talking with his many needle-like teeth is not fun either.
I also enjoyed Rudy as a character, because he reads so much like a genuine, frazzled teenager in an untenable situation who is making the best of things but also has problems doing anything. He loves his family but can’t figure out how to fit into their dynamic. He enjoys making out with fellow island teenager Diana but can’t stop thinking about his new fish boy friend. He wants desperately to get off the island and make his own life but can’t stand to leave anyone behind. And he swears and he makes mistakes and he occasionally trashes his own stuff because he can, and I can easily love Rudy for that, because that’s real.
There is a lot of stuff going on in TEETH that is working talking about – sexuality, rape culture, the web of relationships the main characters are caught in, how family is an essential part of both Rudy and Teeth’s stories, the fantasy elements, etc. – but for now, I’d say I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys dark, realistic-ish fantasy with a queer twist, especially if you like sassy troubled fish boys.
Side note: I’ve seen a lot of reviews describe TEETH as ‘magical realism’ and while it does have elements of fantasy grounded in a realistic contemporary setting, it does not count as magical realism, as magical realism in itself is an entirely different literary movement grounded in Latin American postcolonial history and does not apply to TEETH.