Sharp Teeth

July 5, 2011 at 12:11 pm (Review) (, , , )

Sharp Teeth is Toby Barlow’s debut novel and winner of the 2009 Alex Award. It is a hard-boiled, urban fantasy novel about werewolves – and written in free verse. A combination which could easily have ended up either clichéd or pretentious in the hands of a lesser writer, but handled superbly by Barlow with his witty, elegant style and original ideas. Barlow has a new take on werewolves, heavily inspired by the behaviour of packs of dogs and wolves. The werewolves in Sharp Teeth resemble dogs rather than wolves, and are heavily dependent of their packs. A “coyote” – a werewolf without a pack – is a lost soul who won’t survive for long. Every pack has only one bitch, loved and revered by all the males, and serving as the social “glue” of the pack. The story follows three packs, one whose bitch abandons it when she falls in love with the dog-catcher, Anthony, a growing rival gang and a hunted third pack with only a heart-broken bitch and a few surviving members left.

Unlike the typical werewolf, Barlow’s wolves are mainly concerned with hunting each other, not humans. While humans do sometimes hunt them and are sometimes hunted for food, the werewolves have an entire society of their own. Humans represent more than prey or predator to the werewolves; often, lost or lonely werewolves seek shelter with humans, either by falling in love with one and hiding their true nature as wolf, like the unnamed female protagonist of the story, or by living the comfortable life of a loved pet and hiding their true nature as man, like the former pack-leader, Lark. While Sharp Teeth has plenty of urban grittiness and violence, the friendship between Lark and his human owner Bonnie and the love story between the female werewolf and Anthony are described with profound tenderness and insight. There is humour, too; some of the werewolves become fiercely involved in a bridge tournament while others retain their love of surfing, and Lark realizes to the full how good he has it when Bonnie picks up his shit in a bag.

The verse form, too, works surprisingly well. It’s always great when writers can pull off an unusual form without slipping into the ostentatious or gimmicky, and Barlow manages this by using the verse form in a flexible way that supports the pace and mood of the story. Violent, action-packed sequences are written in short, minimalistic bursts, while reflections or romantic scenes are more lyrical and written in longer stanzas. The language is generally modern and slangy with quite a bit of swearing. The more poetic stanzas are well-written and just infrequent enough that they don’t slow down the action. Overall, the verse form enhances the reading experience without seeming obtrusive, and as you get caught up in the story you will quickly find that the unusual form seems natural and barely noticable.

Sharp Teeth is a well-deserved winner of the Alex Award – It’s the kind of book I would recommend to pretty much everyone. The almost comic book-esque quality of the fast-paced, urban action combined with Barlow’s humour, ability to write touchingly without sentimentality and his love of dogs shining through on every page make it a hard book not to love. My only warning would be that some sources recommend it as a horror novel, and while it is often tense and sometimes sad, you shouldn’t expect it to be scary. Also, note that the Telegraph blurb on the back was written by someone who didn’t pay much attention – it states that Sasha and Anthony are in a relationship, and this is obviously not the case (it confused me for a moment, though).

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