Book Talk: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Summer means school has let out, warm days, and lazing about a lawn chair outside. It also means piling up a supply of books while baking under the sun, or within the cool confines of an air-conditioned space. The books are usually light on characters, a little light on plot, and getting lost in a narrative.

How about a light piece of summer reading with a different take on narrative?

I discovered Sharp Teeth on the bargain table at a neighbourhood Coles bookstore. The cover grabbed my attention, and then its premise took me further, until finally I gave myself over to the novel’s structure. The story starts with a love-struck dog catcher in East LA and his new girlfriend. What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing as the girlfriend genuinely loves him while trying to keep her secret. The girlfriend just quit her pack and is a lycanthrope. Unlike traditional werewolf tales, these creatures look like regular dogs, even hiding in pounds if in trouble. The love story is one tale Toby Barlow weaves as we meet various packs including one dealing in the meth trade; another pack lives a more California-surfer-dude culture yet hides its own dark past.

Did I mention the story unwinds as an epic poem?

Sharp Teeth does not rely on paragraphs, or traditional dialogue. Its pacing reminds some people of an action film. It’s not a surprising analogy as screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, the man responsible for Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, will adapt the novel for the screen. (Danny Boyle, the director of both films, is rumoured to direct.) It’s a unique accomplishment to tell a story in such a non-traditional format. While the action is fast-paced, Barlow has a command of his form to allow the characters to stand out in all their flaws, bad choices, and a driving need to belong not under a gloomy sky in Washington State, but in sunny Los Angeles. While the story has some of the traditional werewolf storylines, it does have a degree of heart and two main characters I found myself rooting for during their own individual odyssey.

For fans of werewolf tales, this will come as a welcome addition to the lore. I do believe even people not keen on fantasy per say will like the magical realism within the novel. Light reading doesn’t have to mean badly written prose, or thinly drawn characters servicing a plot. What Toby Barlow wrote a story finely balancing all the elements to publish a good read for a hot day, or any day.

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