First published 11 September 2011
For my second not quite so recent review I am offering up a book. From the effusive praise that’s is spread over the front, back and inside covers of Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, it would seem that my recommendation is superfluous. However recommending my favourite things from my bookshelf is the nature of the task I have set myself so I’ll just add my light weight to the bulk of critical acclaim the book has garnered, including a 2009 Alex Award.
This is a modern take on the werewolf myth set in LA amid a culture of gangs and the violence that that often entails, animal in its savagery. The werewolf myth has been used to represent all-male, homo-social deviant groups (one need only look at interpretations of Marie de France’s Bisclavret that see the werewolf form as a cipher for homosexuality) and so is uniquely positioned to represent modern day gang culture. The all-male aspect is brought out in the story through the contrasting roles of women in the different packs portrayed: in one she is kept free from sexual contact – the tension keeping the pack together. In the rival pack the lead female is passed around as a reward, highlighting the short-term acquiescence to base desires rife among that pack.
The image of the pack is central to understanding some of the concerns of the book. It is always highlighted that lone werewolves, called coyotes, never survive long, falling prey to scared people or the forces of the underworld in which lycanthropes hide from society. The werewolves know that they need to be part of a bigger unit, a wider family and this instinctive knowledge is contrasted with the dislocated and isolated lives that the normal people in the novel lead. The contrast between people, who are surrounded by society and enjoying all the benefits of civilisation but who lead isolated and often unfulfilling lives, and the werewolves, who represent the savage and wild nature hidden in all of us but who find comfort – of a sort – among their kind, is beautiful realised by Barlow.
This modern take on the werewolf myth is always kept within the realm of the possible, as Nick Hornby said in his review from The Believer ‘The beauty of the book is that it’s deadly serious; Toby Barlow takes his mythical creatures literally, and lets the narrative provide the metaphor’ and that is part of its force. The wolves are almost indistinguishable from vicious dogs and the urban LA setting gives it a heavy coat of reality, which makes it all the easy to see the savage animal nature in ourselves.
It would be impossible to review this book without making reference to the fact that it is a verse novel. I have saved this particular bombshell until now because the form in which Barlow has chosen to cast his story is so intertwined with the theme of savagery and civilisation running through it. This is in part because much of the substance of the novel is difficult to put into words: the feeling of community that comes with sleeping with a pack, the transformation from man to dog, love, violence. Don’t be put off by the free verse form, the story flows naturally and if you are worried about poetry you soon forget that this is verse so taken up are you with the story. What the verse represents is taut language as muscular as the fighting dogs which speaks directly to your animal heart. I could lap up this writing all day and it really does connect with you in a very visceral way. As a refrain from the start of the novel goes: ‘Bone, love, meat, gristle, heat, anger, exhaustion, drive, hunger, blood, fat, marrow’.