What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo
Titan, pb, £7.37
Reviewed by Siobhan O’Brien Holmes
When teenager Eleanor Zarrin is kicked out of boarding school for bad behaviour, she has nowhere left to turn but the cold home of the dysfunctional, snarling family that sent her away. Though not exactly welcomed back with open arms, she tries her best to settle in and find her place amongst the pack. After all, it’s important to know where you stand when your new housemates are shapeshifting wolves and dangerous witches.
But when death unexpectedly visits their secluded Maine household and leaves the Zarrins and their business rudderless, Eleanor must somehow find a way to keep her family from crumbling into chaos and killing each other. Trusting nobody but the charming, tight-lipped family friend who somehow seems never to leave and the enigmatic grandmother who swoops in from Paris at a moment’s notice to save the day, Eleanor slowly unearths the terrifying secrets the house has been hiding within its gloomy rooms and shadowy corridors for centuries. Even worse, she soon discovers that maybe she is as much a monster as the beasts surrounding her.
This is a deliciously written, chilling, gothic novel that will keep you guessing and checking under the bed all the way from the unsettling prologue to the catastrophic end. It’s not easy to categorise What Big Teeth: it combines elements of monster horror, dark fairytale, ghost story and gothic suspense and, as such, fans of Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allen Poe and Susan Hill will all find something to love within its pages. The story unfolds very slowly with a real focus on character and relationships – readers looking for a pacey horror will likely find the plot sluggish – and Rose Szabo gives away no clues as to where things might be heading. Szabo’s approach to the wolf thread feels unique and understated: don’t go into the book expecting a flashy werewolf horror because it’s only one of many delicate layers in the story. Sometimes all those layers do pull down the pace a little as multiple timelines and perspectives are explored through narrative, diary entries, flashbacks and ghostly memories, but it’s that build-up of the family’s troubled backstory and terrible secrets that give the story such depth and the suffocating, unsettling vibe that sets it apart.
There is so much to love about What Big Teeth – least of all the stunning cover that I defy anyone to resist – and it’s truly a masterclass in writing atmosphere, setting and family dynamics. Rose Szabo has truly set the bar high with their stunning, imaginative debut.