I don’t know when it happened exactly, but Hannah Moskowitz crept up on me, and she did so with such subtleness that I have no memory of it. Up until this point, Hannah Moskowitz’s name—and certainly her work—existed far, far away from me. Her books have amazed other readers, filling them up drunk-silly on wonder and heartache, and I had no clue. I missed out, it seems.
After reading reviews, I conclude that Moskowitz can write brilliant stories that make her fanbase feel sad. Likewise, these readers love to feel sad so long as it is brought on by a brilliant Moskowitz novel. I can get down with that, because now—after caving in to my inner-voice that pushed me to pick up and buy this very book—I get to feel the emotional torment of Teeth. How fantastic it is to feel abused by a book of all things.
I wish we would all just fall apart so I wouldn’t have to listen to the downfall happen, so slowly, so painfully. Clawing at us.
Teeth takes place on a remote and peculiar island where the fish can cure a human of the most terminal illness. Rudy, now alone and increasingly bored, finds himself stuck as an inhabitant, but not because he’s sick. Instead, it’s his younger brother Dylan who is (or was) plagued by cystic fibrosis and requires a healthy, life-sustaining dose of magical fish. Plucked right out of his life, Rudy now feels alone and joined, or rather confined, to the island. He daydreams of the future, of his getaway: college. The island life, Rudy discovers, is mundane—or so he thinks.
Enter Teeth: the ugliest and only fishboy haunting island waters. Half human, Teeth is a fish who can’t breathe underwater, has a mouthful of pointy, pointy teeth, and feels that the island’s fish are his family to protect. Fish, might I add, that Dylan’s life depends on. Often stubborn and irrational, Teeth is the true heart of this novel and perhaps the brattiest character I’ll love. Peeling back layers, Teeth shows how deeply complex and tragic he is, which makes his character such a sad but beautiful creature. Similar to Rudy, Teeth is also alone, but much lonelier still, and it is this mutuality that allows them to develop a loyal friendship.
“I’m not going to be whatevers with someone who can’t swim,” he says.
“Yeah, like friends or whatever.”
For me, the magic of this novel did not come from any fish, but from unpreparedness. Shock can either take a person in the direction of a good or bad experience, certainly, but there is some charm in leaping into the unknown. I did not know what kind of novel this would become for me, or if I would connect to it on an emotional level. I tried to keep my knowledge about Teeth—both the book itself and the character—to a scant minimum when I read reviews. I have found that some books are best read when early judgments and expectations haven’t had time to form.
One aspect of Teeth that did sprout expectations on my behalf is Moskowitz’s style of prose. I read that her writing holds beauty and elegant quality. To an extent, I think this is true, but not in a way I had imagined. I suppose with my taste, “elegant” and “beautiful” easily translates as poetic and lyrical. (To be precise, I had Rainer Maria Rilke in mind—perhaps unfairly, and even then it’s really Edward Snow’s Rilke translations I’m thinking of.) But Hannah Moskowitz does write wonderfully, and yes, even poetic flair is sprinkled in. It was not what I had in mind exactly, but it still managed to drag me by the legs through a distressing journey with my full adoration intact. This is the kind of writing a reader should connect to on an emotional level, because it may or may not work for you.
Still, there is something to be said about Moskowitz’s style. It strikes and penetrates, sentences constructed just right so that words prickle you on a level where you can feel the sting. Trust me: that’s only one of dozen and more stings, and those stings will last. Sentence structure pushed over, I am also witness to notable characterization. I felt—and continue to feel—the lasting effects of empathy I underwent. Did Moskowitz’s make it one of her goals to have me stare forlornly at her book, to have me take it off my shelf just to touch it? Like I’m reassuring myself, Yes, this book exists, and you read it and it tore a chunk your heart out? Because either way, Moskowitz accomplished that much in the very least, and I know that it will be months before I recover.
In many ways, Rudy’s solemn attitude could easily morph into whiny complaints. It could be, and thank goodness it’s not, the angst many of us feel tired of reading about in literature. Frankly, I did enough self-pity lamenting as a teen that I don’t need any more of it. The dark past that makes Teeth into this extremely tragic character could be the backdrop ready to amplify Broody Rudy’s mood into extra-broody, but it’s not. Moskowitz displays her wonderful ability to make her writing feel authentic.
Teeth can split your heart into broken pieces, and for all of the right reasons. It’s about companionship, bravery, and the pain that loss causes. Although tentatively formed, the relationship between Teeth and Rudy has a root more stubborn than Teeth himself, and it’s buried somewhere deep. How deep does it go? Where is the breaking point? I’m not so sure there is a breaking point between these two, but Rudy faces difficult choices when Teeth seeks help in freeing his family: the magical fish. The very same fish, as I said, that Dylan needs to live. And just like that: the clear notion of friendship, and even family, suddenly blurs.
This island does feel like the perfect place for murder.