Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

I have a history with this book: I received it some years back as a review copy, started it and failed to get into it -- my thoughts were "This is a prose story chopped up into short lines to fill a novel-sized book. And I don't like werewolves." However, it's not the sort of book I forget -- my memory tends to file away odd combinations of form and genre -- and the fear I felt when I got it as my poetry prescription for March was tempered with a lot of curiosity. I was afraid because I was prejudiced against this book; and because of its length and what with one thing and another I only got my poetry prescription in the last days of the month.

So -- the genre is horror > werewolves; and it has elements of hardboiled detective (I would say that Peabody is too vulnerable to be truly hardboiled, but there is something noirish about his determination to see his case through, despite its baffling, disconcerting nature and its unprepossessing victims). And the form is free verse.

The endeavour as a whole calls to my mind another bonkers combination of form and genre from my past: Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, which I studied at university. Lucretius, for reasons best known to himself (and much discussed on our course), presented to the Roman audience the principles of Epicurean philosophy in 7,400 lines of hexameter.

From my own experiences as a writer I know that form can be a matter of expediency rather than choice. I do wonder what chance and circumstance led Toby Barlow to tell his story in verse form. It must put people off picking up the book -- but I can see it helped generate a lot of the buzz, and I'm sure that people who thought they didn't like poetry, or verse novels, have been sucked in by the fast-paced, visceral reading experience. Talking of visceral, I wondered if another reason for Barlow's choice was that verse allows him to take a more direct route into the sensory parts of the reader's brain. Dogs aren't known for their skill at verbal expression -- but they are known for their deeply sensory, physical experience of the world. Of course a skilled prose writer evokes all sorts of feelings in his audience; but readers of verse are more attuned to the sounds and the rhythms of the words they are consuming. And perhaps they are more open to the magical connections sparked off by metaphor and simile.

This is a brutal, bloody book about brutal people doing bloody things to each other. There were scenes that really troubled me, which is why I don't normally consume hardboiled crime or horror unless I think it's going to be worth the flashbacks. This book was, thanks to skilled writing oddly likeable characters (hats off Cutter and Blue, the bridge-playing gangster dog men).

Sharp Teeth is available from Amazon and probably your local indy will get one for you.

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