With some books, you know as soon as you start what kind of story you’re in. You know when it takes place, what fairy tale you’re following a new path through, and what kind of monsters lurk in the woods.
Rose Szabo’s What Big Teeth is not one of those books. Szabo is upfront about the wolves suggested by the book’s title; they run through the trees in the very first pages. But other, less familiar creatures lurk in these pages, and it takes time—deliciously well-spent time—to understand how Szabo is using familiar images and types to tell their own kind of coming-of-age story. Yes, there’s a grandmother whose warnings ought to be heeded—but there’s a lot more, too, in this slinky and dark YA horror fantasy about love and desire and family secrets.
It takes a minute to place What Big Teeth in time. The Zarrin house—more Addams Family than “Hansel & Gretel”—could have been anywhere, anywhen, just sideways a little from time. But no: it’s mid-century, as references to the War eventually make clear. Eleanor Zarrin’s grandparents came to this country from across the ocean; their history, laden with crows and witches and islands, forms part of Szabo’s deliciously rich aesthetic. Szabo paints in jewel tones—the green of forests, the red of blood—with pale, ethereal touches, like the “milk-white” hair Eleanor and her sister Luma share. Just a few pages in, you’re settled in an in-between state, real and unreal, magic and earthly.
Eleanor has been away at boarding school for years, sent there by her grandmother, Persephone, after a childhood incident that reads like an eerie dream. Another incident has led Eleanor to flee back to the relative safety of the family house in Maine, but she’s reluctant to get into the details at first. It takes her a few false starts before she spills the whole story to Persephone, whose response is worrisome: Is Eleanor a danger to the family?
It’s a disconcerting question, in part because the family is full of werewolves. Eleanor’s sister, father, grandfather and cousin all turn four-legged without more than a moment’s notice. Persephone is a powerful witch who keeps the wolves in line (“I keep them from killing people, mostly”) and the townspeople out of their hair. Eleanor’s mother is strange and damp and somewhat ineffective in a house full of strong personalities. They live far from town, they keep to themselves, and their relationships are somewhat baffling to Eleanor after her years away.
But everything here is a little odd, including the mysterious Arthur, a friend of the family who seems not to eat and who never takes off his dark glasses. Everyone is a little bit in love with him. Or maybe they want to possess him. Or maybe they want to eat him up. “It feels like I want to rip him to pieces, but I don’t. I don’t know, I kind of like it. Do you know what I mean?” Eleanor’s sister Luma asks. And Eleanor does know.
As if Eleanor’s return home isn’t dramatic enough, a sudden death in the family rattles everyone. Eleanor tries to take charge, to take care of everyone, as Persephone asked her to do, but she’s young and somewhat sheltered and knows nothing about running a plant-essence business, let alone how to manage the conflicts and strife within the family. And the first thing she does is precisely what her grandmother warned her not to do: She lets strangers in the house.
Szabo lets us see Eleanor’s mistakes as she makes them, lets us understand how badly she craves belonging and love after a lifetime of being the odd one out. She’s not quite the black sheep of the family, but she’s no wolf and never has been, and the distance she feels between herself and her kin has only been exacerbated by her time away. The house is the world is the Zarrins, and Eleanor left them.
What Big Teeth is purposefully paced and absolutely full of longing: longing to understand oneself, to have a place in the world, to be part of a family in a way that feels real and true and secure. It’s a book about desire, and how baffling and contradictory desire can feel, how it can blur into a sense of wanting to consume or be consumed. It’s about knowing where the lines are between you and the people and things you love, and how to maintain those boundaries and your own malleable sense of self. These things echo through decades and generations, though the haunting story of Eleanor’s grandparents all the way to the book’s blazing finale.
There’s a lot of pain here: rejection, loss, jealousy, cruelty, and a brutal flashback in which a character is rejected by the girl she loves. But there’s also acceptance and grace and different forms of love. One adult, her childhood shaped by her mother’s grief, grows up quiet and strange, but powerful in her own way. Children come to understand their elders’ awful choices, and undo them when things can be undone. Change is slow and painful—but necessary.
Any story with werewolves is going to be, on some level, a story about transformation. “What had Luma said about changing shape?” Eleanor thinks. “That it was like turning yourself inside out. Underneath yourself, another self. As close as skin, always there, whether you used it or not.” Eleanor isn’t a werewolf or a witch; she’s her own creature, hungry and full of want and ache and hope, and she has to accept all of herself. Even the part that bites.
Szabo packs so much into this strange, compelling, enchanting book: gorgeous imagery, dextrous use of tropes (the meddling grandmother, the handsome schoolteacher, the witch in a castle, and so many more), a mythic streak, and a surprising physicality. It’s not the wolves who feel muscular and raw, but Eleanor, with her contradictory desires, her drive to help free everyone from a heavy past. What Big Teeth more than lives up to the promise of its striking cover—it’s an unforgettable debut by an author to watch.
What Big Teeth is available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Read an excerpt here.
Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. You can also find her on Twitter.