Monday, March 18, 2013

"Teeth," by Hannah Moskowitz

The Protagonist: Rudy. When his parents drag him to a godforsaken island for a miracle cure for his brother, Rudy finds himself (almost) the only teenager on an island of sick people.
His Angst: He does form a bizarre friendship with Teeth, an actual merman who lives by the island - until he discovers Teeth is trying to save the very fish that are keeping his brother healthy.

The Secondary Cast:

Teeth: The result of a horrifying union between a woman and a fish (for reals), he was abandoned in the water and makes his way as best he can. Devotes his life to saving the fish from being taken by the creepy fishermen - even though his quest causes him immeasurable torment and pain.

Dylan: Rudy's little brother, who is slowly recovering on a steady diet of magic fish - but will he ever be well enough to do without them?

Diana Delaney: The only other teenage girl on the island, who is kept housebound by her mother. Loves books. She and Rudy start hanging out.

Ms. Delaney: Diana's cruel and thoughtless mother who keeps her daughter inside - and is the perpetrator of even worse crimes.

Angst Checklist:

  • I'm trapped on an island of misfit toys
  • Rape
  • Child Abandonment
  • Freedom
  • The Price of Health and Longevity
  • Caring for a Sick Loved One
  • The Importance of Family

The Word:
Rudy used to be an only child - then his parents had Dylan. Then Dylan developed cystic fibrosis. Then Dylan started dying.

After exhausting every possible medical resource, Rudy's parents somehow discover a mysterious island that is home to a rare species of fish with miraculous, inexplicable healing properties. Desperate to save Dylan, Rudy's parents uproot them all to live on the island with its strange, reclusive community.

Three months later, Rudy's 5-year-old brother, on a steady diet of the magic fish, is recovering at a miraculous rate, but his condition is too unstable to risk returning to the mainland. Rudy feels trapped, and resentful, and guilty for feeling resentful since the fish is the only thing keeping his brother alive.

Still, Rudy cannot wait until he graduates and can leave the cold, dank, isolated island far behind. He's the only teenager apart from the strange, bookish Diana Delaney, who is kept housebound by her controlling mother.

That is, until Rudy meets a merman - an actual fishboy who's been stalking the island, whose name is Teeth. Teeth's story is not a Disney tale. There are no singing crabs or magic kisses - just an outcast, tormented boy-fish hybrid who considers himself the protector of the magic fish the islanders keep devouring. Teeth constantly battles the fishermen and wants to free the magic fish from being eaten forever.

Strangely enough, a painful, prickly friendship based on mutual loneliness builds between them - even as Rudy feels conflicted about the magic fish. He understands Teeth's desire to protect them, but they're keeping his brother alive. They're helping him get better. What is Rudy supposed to do?

Teeth is a dark, visceral, gripping read about dealing with illness and the cost of miracles. As Rudy discovers,  the island's fishermen get away with horrific crimes against Teeth because they're the only ones who know how to catch the fish. As well, the fish's healing properties only last as long as the sick person keeps eating it - which means sick people who come to the island can never leave. And can never stop eating the fish.

Is a miracle worth it, if obtaining it requires the terrible suffering of another person? Is long life still desirable if it's a long life spent trapped on an isolated, stormy island? Moskowitz's fast-paced, razor-sharp novel touches on all these questions, testing and examining them through the warped lenses of both Teeth's and Rudy's perspectives, while ultimately demonstrating how there are no real answers.

Moskowitz demonstrates a remarkable skill for quick, brilliant character building. Rudy is a terrific, well-realized character - lonely and angry and guilty, he loves his little brother Dylan even as he blames him for having to uproot his whole life. Everything revolves around keeping Dylan alive. Rudy knows he needs to protect Dylan, whatever the cost, but he's still not sure how involved he's supposed to be in his brother's life, and how much of a life Rudy is allowed to have. His interactions with his parents feel bruised and real - they clearly love him, but Dylan's life is always in the balance.

Meanwhile, Teeth is a frustrating, heartbreaking character, wonderfully realized with only a few jagged brushstrokes. Alone, abused, and abandoned thanks to monstrously selfish people who should have protected him, he's built his own family, and his own identity as their stalwart protector.

The worldbuilding is functionally minimalist, and extremely effective. I normally don't like minimalist worldbuilding, but it works for this novel - Moskowitz creates a believable island community, but one that is essentially cut off from the rest of the realistic world, the world of governments and rules and taxes. It's like being in a fairy tale, only it's an entire island community that is asleep, oblivious to its own selfish, ignorant dependence.

I raced through this book in mere days, desperate to learn more about Teeth, more about Rudy and Dylan, and how it would end, even as it hurt. In the original Little Mermaid story, every human step the mermaid took was said to have felt as if she stepped on knives - and yet she learned how to dance in order to please the prince. That is how I felt reading Teeth - even though every page hurt, even though every chapter brought more heartbreak, it just kept me reading faster and faster. This was my first Moskowitz novel, but it won't be my last.


  1. Well this sounds different!

    1. I know! Such an interesting story! It was very good at drawing you into the setting and the world - but man, it is DARK. And WEIRD.

  2. This sounds amazing. Between this, "The Diviners," "Code Name Verity," and "Gone Girl," you've given me a great list of books to buy (once I have money, that is).

    1. True! I've had to curb my book buying - but that's what the library is for! Hooray!

  3. Wow, this sounds so...different. I had seen people talking about loving it, but I hadn't sat down and read a review (or the blurb) until today. I love a book that leaves me thinking well past its conclusion.

    Is this supposed to be an adaptation of the original Little Mermaid tale?

    1. No, not at all. I just compared the two because both Teeth and the original Mermaid tail are pretty dark, with uncertain endings.