Friday, August 24, 2012

Contemporary YA Appreciation Week - "Teeth" by Hannah Moskowitz

A gritty, romantic modern fairy tale from the author of Break and Gone, Gone, Gone.
Be careful what you believe in.
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. With nothing to do but worry, Rudy sinks deeper and deeper into loneliness and lies awake at night listening to the screams of the ocean beneath his family’s rickety house.
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. Rudy can’t remember the last time he felt so connected to someone, but being friends with Teeth is more than a little bit complicated. 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.

I know many people will be looking at the synopsis then at the title and wondering one of two things: One, “But Ceilidh, that doesn’t sound very realistic”, or Two, “I knew fish-boys were real! Weekly World News was right again! Now we need to get Obama’s real birth certificate!” I understand these concerns, and am concerned for some of you in return, and I hope this review can put your mind at ease.
Like many an eager YA reviewer, I have been inordinately excited about the upcoming release of Hannah Moskowitz’s novel “Teeth” ever since I heard the term “magical gay fish-boy”. In a time where originality seems to be an increasingly rare commodity and the same three cover templates fill the shelves of the young adult section of your local bookshop, to hear that such a barmy, intriguing and down-right unique concept has not only been written but bought by Simon & Schuster is a much needed reprieve from paranormal love and the end of the world. However, Moskowitz has never left her trademark contemporary YA field (one where she excels – “Gone Gone Gone” is one of the best books of 2012 and you can read my review below), and such a high concept idea needs a strong clear vision and the talent to pull it off if it is to even come close to approaching its potential. However, I am proud to declare that not only does Moskowitz pass those expectations, she knocks them right out of the park.
While the book is clearly not in the same contemporary territory as the author’s previous books, it retains a strangely gritty realism throughout and never fully yields to the fantastical premise on offer. Yes, this story does feature a character who is half human and half fish (and not at all glamourised or depicted as beautiful, another breath of fresh air), but it’s really centred on Rudy and his struggles to cope with his family’s situation as well as the difficulties one must go through in order to just grow up and be normal. Similarly to “Gone Gone Gone”, we are treated to an effective and emotional character study that strikes another blow against the dissenters of YA who declare the genre to be shallow and void of any real value. It takes a particularly skilful and gutsy author to go for the tough and grotesque and pull it off with such panache.  
Moskowitz’s style is raw, unfussy and packs a punch, convincingly taking on the mantle of a confused teenage boy who often can’t find the right words to describe how he’s feeling. His confusion is tragically contrasted with his knowledge of the inevitable fate that will befall his sick younger brother. Both prone to fits of childishness, with the swears to match, and the decidedly mature awareness of his family’s humanity, Rudy is something of a triumph in terms of character work in YA. The book has its fair share of interesting supporting characters, although none quite match Rudy and the manic, angry and self-deprecating Teeth for memorability. Rudy’s relationship with his family is a particular highlight, capturing the frustrations and fears that accompany being surrounded 24/7 by the possibility of your loved ones dying. Even the miracle of magical fish cannot promise anything long-term, and the shadow of this knowledge looms over Rudy. The phrase that kept cropping up as I was putting together my thoughts for this review was “deceptively simple”, which sounds rather patronising if I’m honest, but Moskowitz has managed to pull off creating layered complexities and subtext without resorting to over-done prose or forced sentimentality. Even when the book veers close to that territory, as it does especially towards the end, Moskowitz is in complete control of these characters.
However, the novel shares a similar problem with “Gone Gone Gone” in that the plotting is less skilfully handled than the wonderful character work. It’s not a novel preoccupied with plot and creating a rollicking adventure for its readers, which I appreciate, but when “Teeth” does change to a race-against-time style story towards its climax, it just doesn’t work as well. The relationship between Rudy and Teeth is so effective and affecting that it feels like a disservice for it to be briefly shelved as the story calls for an exciting final few chapters. Fortunately this does not detract from the raw emotional power of the book, particularly in relation to the central relationship. It shouldn’t work (actually, nothing connected to that high concept blurb should work) and yet it retains a moving, often humorous and starkly unsentimental edge that feels like a blast of cool water to the face to clear away an overload of insta-love and obsessive looks. Rudy’s sexuality is not black and white and Moskowitz, one of the few YA authors practicing what she preaches in terms of diversifying the cast of current YA novels, makes no such demands from her protagonist.
I classify this novel, probably inaccurately, as contemporary because it has far more in common with that genre of fiction than the paranormal shelves packed full of mystical sea creatures. Moskowitz avoids clichés and challenges herself to take the unbeaten track, using her simply explained mythos to explore all too human themes and relationships. I honestly cannot recommend “Teeth” enough. I devoured it in a way that I haven’t done with a YA novel in quite some time. It’s challenging, refreshing, unsentimental, downright weird, heart-breaking and far more relatable than you’d expect. While I do not expect there to be a swarm of copycat magical gay fish-boy novels released in this book’s wake, as amazing as that would be, I hope that this will bring Moskowitz the acclaim she so clearly deserves.
"Teeth" will be released on January 1st 2013 by Simon Pulse. I received my e-ARC from Edelweiss.

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