Blame Teen Wolf and too many episodes of Scooby Doo if you want (OK, and Scott Speedman in the Underworld movies), but I like werewolves. ‘Lycanthrope’ is one of my favourite words. It’s right up there with ‘quokka’ on my list of words I like just because of how they sound. (Plus have you ever seen a quokka? Cute!) I also like certain words because of what they mean, others because their use makes me sound smart, and even more because of the way I can bastardise their pronunciation to amuse myself.
Nerdy word types also like collective nouns—mostly for the reasons I listed above. The collective noun for werewolves is a ‘lunacy’. In Toby Barlow’s book Sharp Teeth this is what you will find: a magnificent story, weaved in free verse, around a lunacy of werewolves.
Those posh-brained of you who are about to click away due to the mention of ‘werewolves’ and ‘free verse’, do not. Sharp Teeth is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and this is not due to some weird monster-crush I may or may not have on our supernatural canine brethren. It’s simply because this is an amazingly well-told tale—rapid, concise, emotive, thrilling, mysterious and inventive. And don’t let the structure of ‘free verse’ put you off, either. Lord knows I usually run from any notion of poetry, so if this novel took only three pages to draw me in, it will you too. (A new friend and fellow-blogger is attempting to win me over to poetry and I do intend on embracing it whole-heartedly once I get over my unwarranted adolescent fear of it. Stay tuned.)
So why did I like Sharp Teeth so much? It was a ride. And I’m not sure I’ve been on a reading-ride like this for a while. At times I felt like I was reading the equivalent of a Scorcese film—if good ol’ Marto ever directed an LA gang movie where the main characters have tails to wag. Action-packed, plot-detailed, strong characters, vulnerable characters, sympathetic characters; a love story, a revenge story, a crime story; and card-playing dogs—oh yes! It is tense, gory and dark. It is pacy, rhythmic and focussed. When going out with friends the other night there was one too many of us to fit in the car and I eagerly volunteered to catch the train because I wanted to read my book. And then I waved it about at all of them, in my enthusiasm probably only just missing clocking them over the head. When I start waving books about, you know I’m in deep.
Anthony begins work at the city pound. Lark has some shady business deals to take care of and a grand plan for his pack. Anthony falls in love with the pack’s girl. People from the pound start disappearing or being killed. A cop receives strange and muffled phone calls about dogs and gangs and killings. There is another pack—or are there two? There are drugs, there is violence, there is a statewide bridge competition. How is it all connected? Do they all know about each other? Who is doing what to whom? What happened in South America? And what’s with all these darn dogs wandering the city?
The way Barlow tells his tale is impressive. Not just because it is so engrossing, but because he does it in such a succinct way. Every word, comma, dash and line space in Sharp Teeth pulls above and beyond its weight. As a reader you almost feel like you shouldn’t understand the characters as much as you do, that what’s going on should need further clarification, that the imagery—the movie running through your head, if you will—should not be so clear and fleshed out. How, indeed, could so few words stir one up as much as they do? How could they tell a ‘proper’ story? How could they lead their reader to almost maim her friends in her emphatic praise of the book?
It all works because a talented writer has put his time and skill into telling a well-conceived story in a concentrated manner. Like some of Toby Barlow’s characters, Sharp Teeth is smooth, cool and edgy. It balances tension and action, and knits together reality and fantasy in such a way that after an initial pause to intellectually blink, the reader merely accepts the world the story is set in and carries on.
I positively adored it—if that’s not howlingly clear—and my only concern now is that I have to return the book to the dear friend who leant it to me. How he managed to live without it panting on his bookshelf I’ll never know, but I’m awfully glad he did and now plan to track down my own copy. Don’t get too close when I do, though. You may end up with concussion.