Poetry: Sharp Teeth, Toby Barlow

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Publisher: Heinemann (Random House)
Pages: 313 (Hardback)
Format: Free-Verse Novel

Rating:

An ancient race of lycanthropes survives in modern L.A. and its numbers are growing as packs convert the city’s downtrodden into their fold.

Stuck in the middle are a local dogcatcher and the woman he loves, whose secret past haunts her as she fights a bloody one-woman battle to save their relationship. Meanwhile, dog packs fight and scheme all around them, hiding out in old warehouses, city kennel cages, or the plush comfort of suburban homes.

Paying no heed to the moon, these packs change from human to wolf at will, squaring off against one another as they seek dominance at any cost.

Sharp Teeth is a novel-in-verse that blends epic themes with dark humour, dogs playing cards, crystal meth labs, and acts of heartache and betrayal in Southern California.

I have to confess that, sometime between hearing about Sharp Teeth for the first time and actually getting round to reserving a copy at my library, I completely forgot that it wasn’t written in prose. So when I got my hands on a copy and saw the words ‘novel-in-verse’ my brain did a little ‘oh shit, what have I let myself in for?’. Poetry is something I tend to struggle with, free-verse even more so than most because ‘what the fuck, it’s just putting awkward line-breaks into awkwardly structured sentences!’. Thankfully I ignored this little voice, plowed on anyway, and really enjoyed myself.

It’s a fun, action packed, and surprisingly accessible read. By a couple of pages in any small quibbles I had about it being in free-verse had evaporated. It worked for this story in a way I’m not sure prose would have. It’s probably not the best poetry in the world, I’m really no expert, but it was functional. It did its job and it did it well – I never felt myself having to go back and reread chunks and it certainly didn’t detract from the story being told. If anything in fact, it enhanced it.

The plot was a little confusing to begin with; two – possibly three – different werewolf packs, one of them split up into at least three groups,then the dogcatcher, the policeman, a mysterious voice on the phone and vaguely mentioned ‘plans’. The narrative tended to flick between characters quite quickly, revealing little bits but never the whole picture. But as I went on, even with all the added plotlines, pack politics, sudden switches of alliances and new characters, it became easier and easier to piece it together, to work out the character’s pasts, what the ‘plan’ was, and how everything all fitted together. It’s a shame that the climax it all built up too felt a bit rushed, but that’s the way in a lot of books and, with the violence and gore meter already pretty damn high, it was always going to be a fast and brutal finish, so I can’t say that I’m too disappointed with it either.

The characters though, it has to be said, were pretty flat archetypes; the unlucky everydude, girl with a troubled past, mob boss, overworked policeman. In a prose novel I would have expected a lot more from them but here, with the way the story was told, it fitted. The characters themselves aren’t so important as what they represent – and what they represent are mostly  different types of loneliness and  desperation, the different ways people cope with it, and the lengths they will go to protect themselves from being plunged back into that state again. We’re given snippets of several of the werewolves pasts as well as insights into their recruitment and they’re almost all outsiders who have slipped through the cracks of society. As characters on their own there’s not much substance or complexity there, but for the story being told it doesn’t really matter for the most part. The one place where it does is the relationship between Antony and his werewolf girlfriend, which unfortunately came off to me as teenage lust with no emotional foundation. Although I could understand why he would be drawn to a beautiful woman and I could understand why she would want a ‘normal human’ who knew nothing about her past, I simply didn’t see them as a couple remotely in love with each other so much as simply loving what the other represented to them (Anthony finds validation that he’s better than the deadbeats he works with while his girlfriend sees him as a way to escape her past and start fresh). Which would be fine, if the narration hadn’t kept trying to convince me that there was some instant deep emotional connection between them and they would self-destruct without each other.

Other than that, and the way the women were almost solely defined by who they chose to have sex with – I really didn’t like the ‘one female to a pack’ rule that turned the female characters into somebody either to protect or to be used as a sexual incentive by the male pack-members – I didn’t have any particular problems with this book. But neither did I love it. I enjoyed it, very much, I liked the forthright blood-and-guts practical way it dealt with the werewolves, but it probably won’t be featuring on any list of my ‘favourites’.

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Filed under Novels, Poetry, Reviews

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