Hunger for Home

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I am tempted to start here with a dramatic statement about how rare it is for me to find a book so absorbing that I cannot possibly continue with my regularly scheduled life until I have finished reading it, but that would, unfortunately, be misleading of me. It is only that the last few books I read were, to various degrees, disappointing; at the moment, it feels novel to enjoy what I’m reading. But What Big Teeth had me right away. I was helpless in its jaws by the end of the first chapter.

Rose Szabo’s debut novel follows Eleanor Zarrin as she returns to her family’s home after eight years away at boarding school. Her memories of the place are fuzzy—she is the normal one in a family of literal monsters, and though she knows she used to hold her own amongst them, she no longer remembers how to fit in. It does not help that her grandmother seems convinced that she’s a danger to the family; she has been an outcast at school all these years, and now she is one in her own home.

But when a sudden death rocks the family, Eleanor is the one left to pick up the pieces: It is up to her to manage the finances, hold the family together, and placate the nearby town—all while trying to unravel the secrets of the captivating family accountant and solve the mystery of her own strangeness. According to her grandmother, Eleanor will determine the Zarrins’ fate—but will she save them or ruin them?

There is an enthralling originality to this book. The Zarrins are a family of monsters, but none are wholly familiar: not the bath-bound mother; not the pale, unageing accountant; not even the wolfish grandfather. They are just as mysterious to the reader as they are to Eleanor herself; hints of recognizable folklore make the answers feel just out of reach, such that setting this book aside for any length of time becomes difficult. And the slow reveal of information is satisfyingly well plotted. I have recently been frustrated by a trend I’ve noticed in YA literature of a book’s plot hinging on its protagonist’s stupidity—the questions they need to ask and the connections they need to make are right in front of them, but they can’t seem to see them. This is incredibly annoying if I, the reader, see all the answers plain as day, and must suffer through the protagonist’s idiocy and avoidable mistakes, knowing that the book would be half as long if I were in their place.

What Big Teeth is not like that. Eleanor makes mistakes that I would avoid, and doesn’t make connections that I can see, but not because she’s stupid—because she’s naïve, and convinced of her own uselessness, and so very lonely, wanting so desperately to be told that she belongs. These are her fatal flaws, and they are entrenched in the text; reading this book, I could not be frustrated by her choices, or even exasperated—I just felt her hurt, and knew that she couldn’t have done anything differently. Stupidity and obliviousness are not justifiable flaws in literature. Naiveté and loneliness are.

The writing, meanwhile, is striking; I’m not always able to picture the scenes that I read in my mind, but Szabo’s descriptions are grounded and precise in a way that I find very evocative. The aesthetic is, unexpectedly, reminiscent of a Miyazaki film, particularly Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away—there is something enchanting in it, even in the book’s darkest moments. (And now, of course, I find myself wanting a Miyazaki take on this story very badly.) What Big Teeth is a lot of things: kin to horror, though not quite scary; a child of magical realism, perhaps; a cousin of romance. And it is, somehow, my favorite trope, found family: though instead of being about finding a new family, it is about re-finding the old one.