Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow

Sharp Teeth had been on my radar for a while.I read a review when it first came out and it sounded interesting, but not quite up my alley. I tend to read literary novels rooted in realism, so a book about werewolves? Eh. I passed it by.

Then one day, while at the college bookstore buying texts for my writing workshop, I saw that my favorite professor had listed Sharp Teeth as required reading for one of his undergraduate classes. "Huh," I thought. "I really admire that professor. Maybe this book deserves a reading after all." Alas, I forgot about Sharp Teeth, reading story collections by Alice Munro and Jesse Lee Kercheval instead. Finally I found myself at the public library right before my trip to Florida, looking for something different. Fun. Beach-able. I saw Sharp Teeth on the shelf and decided to give it a shot.

The first thing you should know about Sharp Teeth is that it is written entirely in verse. I don't come across much epic poetry these days and I admit - I groaned when I realized this book was one big poem (a non-rhyming poem, but still). I decided to keep reading and after a while I got used to the structure and began to appreciate the stylistic choice that the author, Toby Barlow, had made. Sharp Teeth is a book about werewolves that roam Los Angeles and the drama, betrayal, love and loss that occurs among and between different packs. It's also a love story about one werewolf - an unnamed woman - who falls in love with Anthony, a dogcatcher who is in the dark about his love's true self. Mostly though, it's a story about identity, community and the things we do in order to feel like we belong somewhere, with someone. It's about all the things every book is about, but it looks at these common themes from a fresh perspective - a wolf's perspective.

What worked in this book: I ended up liking the prose poetry style more than I thought I would. Because the story itself was so fantastic, the poetry suited it. It was sort of like reading The Odyssey - the line breaks gave the book a feeling of ancient importance, even though it was set in modern day LA. I also liked the way the sparse prose left much to the imagination - Barlow shies away from giving the reader too many details. We are offered a glimpse of this world, a few lines that show how much Anthony and the girl are in love, for example, or a short verse about the process of changing into a werewolf, or even a page recounting the act of a wolf eating a human bone by bone. Barlow tends to linger on the more gruesome scenes, which made the short and sweet moments hold even more importance. It took me about 50 pages to get into this book, but once I was in I was hooked. It was also a faster read than I expected - all that white space makes for a lot of page turning! And of course I liked the romance story line. Of course I did.

What didn't work: As I said, Barlow shies away from details. Sometimes this works for him, sometimes it works against him. This book is very "in the moment" - we don't learn a lot about the characters' pasts and some of their motives are murky. There is clearly some kind of plan that is being set in motion by the werewolves, but we're never told exactly what that plan is. And while this adds to the air of mystery, it's also a little annoying. I wanted to KNOW more. I wanted to know the history of werewolves - where did they come from? Is there some kind of leader? How long do they live? Are they governed by any rules? While these questions are addressed, we are given only hints of the answers. I also felt some of the characters were on the one-dimensional side. There are many werewolves in the different packs. We get a lot of names of different wolves but it was hard to remember who was who - they had few differentiating characteristics.

Overall: I'm glad I read this book. It wasn't my Favorite Book Ever but it was a great way to step outside my literary comfort zone, in regard to both plot and the structure. Plus, it was a really fun book to read on the beach. Three out of five stars!