What if Wednesday Addams had been sent away to boarding school when she was little? Would she remember all the secrets of her monstrous family? Would she remember why, of all of them, she was the one so dangerous that she had to be banished?
This is the best way to describe the premise of Rose Szabo's debut novel, “What Big Teeth” — though the Zarrin family is both much stranger and more dour than the affable Addamses.
Eleanor Zarrin hasn't been home to her family's ramshackle mansion in Maine since her grandmother, the matriarch, sent her away to boarding school as a punishment for some terrible mishap that Eleanor can't remember clearly. There are a lot of things that Eleanor can't quite remember, and many family secrets that she has never understood.
When she arrives home after years of absence, on the run from yet another terrible mishap, there is no hiding from the fact that her family is not like other families. Her werewolf grandfather, sister, father, and cousin want to fight her, her mer-creature mother doesn't know how to deal with her, her knife-wielding aunt keeps menacing her, and the witch grandmother who banished her in the first place won't tell her why she's a danger to them all. And then there's the family's mysterious accountant, who never seems to age, and who everyone in the family is a little bit in love with — Eleanor included.
Yes, there is definitely something rotten at the heart of the Zarrin family — and even though on the surface, Eleanor seems like an almost normal girl, she begins to realize that the monster hiding inside of her may be the most terrible of them all.
I think that I went into “What Big Teeth” expecting it to be coy about its magic and monsters, and was delighted when it quickly went full, unapologetic Addams Family. So often, stories about creepy family houses in New England are subtle, are-they-aren't-they mysteries. “What Big Teeth” doesn't mess around with all of that. The Zarrins are absolutely monsters, their house is absolutely haunted, and the real mystery is why the most normal-seeming of them has all the monsters frightened.
The unraveling of this mystery does take its time, giving us lots of space to appreciate its cast of oddballs and misfits. The Zarrins are a tragic and prickly bunch, but as the story progressed, I found myself becoming increasingly fond of them. They are not, by any measure, good. They make terrible choices, are mostly mean to each other, and communicate badly, if at all. But despite all that, they are somehow very loveable - polyps, pointy teeth and all.
Eleanor herself is sometimes a frustrating protagonist, retreating when I wish she'd fight and remaining silent when I want her to probe more deeply. But as the story progresses and we learn the true depth of her alienation from everyone around her, I found myself understanding and sympathizing with her somewhat passive approach. And when she does take action, it's all the more poignant when it has terrible consequences.
While the various Zarrin family members can technically be sorted into the standard categories of monsters, we never see the words werewolf or vampire or mermaid. None of the characters are reduced to stereotypes of their genre, and Szabo is very adept at picking and choosing traits that telegraph understanding without anchoring the characters to everything that's come before. They have the space to feel like new, unique creatures that can surprise us with both their monstrousness and their humanity.
Ultimately, their humanity is the point. Being a monster has been passed down from one generation to the next in this family, and so has inter-generational trauma. The matriarch and patriarch are immigrants, driven from their homes by hardship, and they have tried to build a little island of safety for themselves and their descendants. But they brough their emotional baggage with them, and it's weighing down the younger generations so heavily that they're all stuck in place.
And ultimately, that's the metaphor. It's easier to ignore the deep-rooted trauma that gives us all the potential to be monsters than it is to face it head-on. But if you ignore it for too many generations, eventually it may emerge unbidden and swallow everything whole. “What Big Teeth” gazes into that darkness to face the monster that dwells within.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.
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