Everything Is Teeth by Evie Wyld review: a chomp out of your heart
There’s a novel’s worth of feeling and complexity in Wyld’s words, which swim around the reader thanks to Sumner’s subtle illustration, says Sinéad Gleeson
Everything is Teeth
Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner
Evie Wyld’s work has always had one foot in Australia. In her exceptional debut novel, After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice (2009), two Queensland men, generations apart, deal with war, masculinity and identity. In All the Birds Singing, (2013), Wyld shifted her gaze to the androgynously named woman, Jake, who leaves behind a complicated life down under by moving to a remote farm on the Isle of Wight.
Wyld grew up with an English father and Australian mother, and her childhood veered between the two continents. Now, working with illustrator Joe Sumner on this graphic novel, she navigates not just that geographic distance, but also the spaces between memory and relationships.
Wyld’s opening for such a visual project might come as a surprise. “It’s not the images that come first when I think of the parts of my childhood spent in Australia . . . it’s the sounds . . . and stronger still the smells – eucalyptus, watermelon, and filter mud, rich and rude and sickly strong.”
Everything Is Teeth details Wyld’s Australian Christmases in the sun, complete with food, family and swimming. After the Antipodean heat and light, it’s back to the grey streets of Peckham, where she scours the library for books about Australia and its creatures.
This is a hybrid story of words and images, but memory, as it often does, offers us other scraps. Olfactory ones, ones based on tactility, or the mood of a particular setting.
For Wyld, however, the smells of nature and her surroundings are linked to something that has become a lifelong obsession: “Most of all, the river, muddy and lined with mangrove. Salt and sulphur; at low tide the black mud that smelled bad, that had stingray burrows hollowed out in it. The smell I associate with the smell of sharks.”
In Australia, an uncle tells her about the time a shark circled him in the water, but he knew to play dead and float. For Christmas, she envies her brother’s gift: a bronze whaler’s jaw (she “steals touches of the teeth”). In one book, she discovers real-life diver Rodney Fox, who was massively injured in a shark attack, but survived. Tiger, Mako, the Great White – all seep into her south London consciousness.
On nearly every page, sharks lurk, moving through the gloom in the most ordinary (and out-of-water) settings.
In Sumner’s drawings, many of the creatures look eerily like photographs, adding to the effect. Wyld won’t dangle her legs over the couch, for fear a shark is circling the room, or that one might swim up the bathroom overflow pipe. In the car, she sees them in the rearview mirror.
Sharks also offer solace, as her family struggles with their own issues. Her father overworks; her brother is bullied at school. When he is frequently beaten up, Wyld recounts shark stories to distract him: about divers getting eaten and the Mako shark found with a pair of expensive stilettos in its gut. When the family all sit down to watch Jaws, the ultimate shark movie, Wyld identifies with the troubled patriarch (Brody/her father) and the vulnerable boy (Brody’s son Michael/her brother).
The title Everything Is Teeth references the fact that a shark’s skin is made entirely from teeth. One part is literally the same as the whole, just as it is with memory. For Wyld, it’s the talismanic objects – sharks, books, films – that connect us to the people we love.
Throughout, and quite deliberately to focus our attention on the narrative, Joe Sumner’s palette is minimal. For the most part he favours monochromatic black and white, with yellow for landscape, pale blue for sea. purple for night scenes – and lashings of red for blood or viscera.
The sparest pictures of all are at the end of the book, as Wyld’s father lies dying in a hospital. Now an adult, she equates Rodney Fox’s story to her father’s fight for life: “He fought on his own terms . . . gouged at her eye . . . bought himself some time. An inhalation of breath.” It’s a stunningly rendered juxtaposition of past and present, life and death.
Wyld has already proved herself in the broad canvas of the novel. Here she shows her gift for brevity. There’s a novel’s worth of feeling and complexity in her words, which swim around the reader thanks to Sumner’s subtle illustration.
The endpapers of the hardback feature white rows of shark jaws (like the ones Quint boils in large steaming pots in Jaws). They bookend a heartfelt and haunting memoir, written with beauty and verve.
Sinéad Gleeson presents The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1