Reclaiming What Has Been Taken: A Review of Rachel Harrison’s Such Sharp Teeth
Such Sharp Teeth. Rachel Harrison. Berkley, October 2022.
Stories of werewolves have long played with the notion of the wild beast inside all of us, howling to get out. In classic films like The Wolfman and An American Werewolf in London, these are tragic stories of young men trying to maintain a grasp on their humanity while something monstrous takes over their bodies. These narratives depict men who turn into werewolves and must be stopped before they kill someone they love, and speak to the potential violence that men are socialized to inflict on vulnerable women who are trying desperately to save them from themselves. Even in more recent films such as the Underworld series and the Twilight films, turning into a werewolf is depicted as a masculine transformation that makes the person part of a pack, embodying community but also the toxic masculinity of control and violence that forms these groups.
Thankfully, more writers and filmmakers are tapping into the potential that werewolf lore and stories have to explore how trauma, assault and loss of bodily autonomy reflect the experiences of women and femme peoples, and how these characters respond with violence and transformation.
In Rachel Harrison’s Such Sharp Teeth, Aurora, or Rory, is a fiercely independent professional in Manhattan who comes back to her hometown to help her twin sister Scarlett, who is struggling with being pregnant and the prospect of being a single parent. I loved how Harrison complicated Rory’s story, one of a successful woman drawn back to the hometown she couldn’t wait to leave and reconnecting with her family and friends, by combining it with a classic story of a werewolf attack in the dark woods at night.
Once Rory is attacked by the creature in the woods, her life is ripped in half: before the attack and after it. This traumatic event complicates Rory’s ability to help care for her sister, with whom she shares a deep bond as her twin, as she becomes consumed by the changes in her new werewolf self. Harrison’s ability to inhabit Rory’s internal panic in first person, combined with the absurdity of her dry, dark wit, makes it clear that the monster is stalking her from inside her own body. Rory expresses how her body, which she always felt a strong sense of ownership over, now feels alien and out of her control in the same way that Scarlett feels in her pregnancy. There is a kind of reluctant surrender that Rory undergoes after her first violent transformation, which is fantastically brutal. The trauma from her attack literally transforms her. She becomes stronger, faster, more libidinous and free, but she now must contend with the life-altering limitations of being a werewolf, much like people feel when they are pregnant and about to become a parent. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the book occurs when Rory acknowledges that becoming a werewolf feels powerful, but has also robbed her of autonomy over her body and her independence. Her werewolf powers make her more observant, but also hypervigilant, and cause her to consider how men she encounters assume their safety when she knows secretly what violence she is capable of inflicting on them. Rory realizes that, unless she can learn how to gain control over her werewolf self, she can never return to her career and her former life.
After Rory and Scarlett’s mother visits for an impromptu baby shower, Rory experiences dreams and flashbacks that reveal how she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend Dave as a child, and the toll that her mother’s inaction took on her. Though she is a naturally confident, outspoken person, Rory learned as a child that even being vocal would not save her from attacks on her body, and the monster that is overtaking her body is also tapping into the rage that she suppressed for years at not being heard and cared for after the assault. The assault from her childhood and the creature that attacked her begin to blend in her mind. Rory begins to look at her increased strength and bloodthirstiness as a means to seek justice — against her mother, against Scarlett’s ex who seemingly abandoned her, against anyone who would seek to control or harm her. “I crave destruction, desire consequence,” Rory says. “I want to rip the world apart, limb from limb, and now I can.”
Rory’s brutal honesty tears away the mask that she knows she has always had to wear as a confident, honest, sex-positive woman in the world. Since her assault as a child, she has had to temper her anger and her inner pain to be successful. This inhibition manifests most in her relationship with Scarlett and her burgeoning romance with Ian, a friend from high school with whom she reconnects at a bar. Even when she confesses her transformation to Scarlett, the person that she is closest with, it isn’t until Scarlett sees a video of Rory’s transformation that she believes her. Even then, there is a poignant moment where Scarlett weeps at the horror she witnesses, and yet Rory doesn’t comfort her, wanting for once to be believed for her pain. This felt so real to me as a survivor of multiple traumas and someone with invisible illnesses. So many of us whose bodies have been affected by trauma and chronic pain are socialized to hide our pain from our loved ones for fear of upsetting them, but Rory accepts that her pain is hers, and facing it is her only option to survive.
As in many werewolf stories, Rory must contend with the werewolf that bit her and how to live as a werewolf, concluding what so many of us trying to heal from our trauma know: hurt people often cause more harm. Harrison doesn’t condemn her feelings, but affirms Rory’s decision to be accountable for the harm she could cause. Only through honesty and vulnerability can she make a new life. I left this book feeling a keen respect for how Harrison created a werewolf story that utilized body horror and monstrous violence to show that making peace with the body and with the effects of one’s trauma is possible.
Leticia Urieta is a Tejana writer from Austin, TX. Leticia is a graduate of Agnes Scott College with a BA in English/Creative Writing and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community with a focus on the pedagogy of equity in creative writing. She is the Regional Program Manager for Austin Bat Cave and is the director of Barrio Writers in Austin, a free college-level youth writers workshop.
Her fiction explores the intersections of Latinx identity with folklore, traditional stories, and the supernatural or speculative. Her creative work appears in PANK, Chicon Street Poets, Lumina, and many others. Her mixed genre collection of poetry and prose, Las Criaturas, is forthcoming from FlowerSong Press.Leticia loves living in Austin with her husband and two dogs, who are terrible work distractions. She is fueled by sushi and breaks to watch pug videos on Instagram. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
This article was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly call for review. The author and editors had no prior acquaintance. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Alex Skopic. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.
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