Book Review: Hold the Dark by William Giraldi

If Hold the Dark is ever made into a movie, expect it be a darling of the Academy; it’s exactly the sort of tough, feral story that voters have favored for Best Picture in recent years. I can easily imagine it becoming another No Country for Old Men—but more on that later, because there is at least one thing that separates Hold the Dark from many of Hollywood’s recent ventures in grit and grime: scope. Though William Giraldi’s second novel is a slim read at just over 200 pages, it would take a director of David Lean’s caliber to fully capture its weird, looming majesty; only the man who gave us Lawrence of Arabia could do justice to the vast, primordial blankness of the Alaskan wilderness. As it stands, my choice for director would be Clint Eastwood; Mystic River may have a more claustrophobic feel to it, but not for nothing does Hold the Dark’s dust jacket bear Dennis Lehane’s endorsement.

Hold the Dark begins with a spate of kidnappings in the small town of Keelut, Alaska; without warning, and in rapid succession, children are being snatched from their play and taken deep into the wilderness. But though the police are called in, it quickly becomes clear that no human agency is responsible for the disappearances; it is the edge of winter, and the children have been taken by hungry wolves. The third child to be abducted is the son of Medora Slone, who writes to wolf expert Russell Core, begging him to help her find Bailey’s body and kill the animal that took him before her husband Vernon returns from his deployment overseas. Core—though not without misgivings—agrees, but soon discovers that Bailey’s disappearance is not what it seems. To reveal much more would be to give away key plot points; suffice it to say that from this point on, Giraldi spins a story of flight, pursuit, and revenge, as Core and police detective Donald Marium track Medora and Vernon across the Alaskan tundra.

In tone, in topic, in sheer, brutal sparseness of prose, there’s really only one writer to compare Giraldi to, and that’s Cormac McCarthy. Like McCarthy, Giraldi knows how to make language itself violent; his sentences are stripped-down and compact, yet somehow teetering on the edge of control. Each one feels like a barely contained explosion—raw, shocking, and brimming with meaning. Even at his most philosophical, Giraldi pulls no punches. Take Core’s meditations on the cold (already savage, even in the early months of winter):

Beyond the snowed-in trees, just over these hills, lay an unknowable compass of tundra, a tapestry of whites and grays. Everywhere the living cold. Like grief, cold is an absence that takes up space. Winter wants the soul and bores into the body to get it.

Giraldi’s prose does something similar; it’s the kind of writing that grips you and then leaves you gutted and reeling, perhaps as a result of its curious (but wholly compelling) duality. Giraldi’s words ring instantly and viscerally true, but they also have a remote, alien edge to them. The violence in particular takes place at a remove—or rather, it slips back and forth between horrible immediacy and slight denaturalization in a way that echoes the numb horror of true shock:

The rounds punched [the man’s] back and split his head, strewed the beige building with a flare of red. For an instant it looked to Slone almost like a painting, the lustrous spray of it something he once saw in an art book.

More broadly, though, the occasional strangeness of Giraldi’s writing serves as an effective reminder of the strangeness of nature—both external and human—in the “vast silences” of the far north. And it is in this respect, perhaps, that Giraldi has even Cormac McCarthy beat. “You’re not on Earth here,” Medora tells Core early in the novel, and the rest of Hold the Dark certainly seems to bear witness to the truth of her words. In Medora, in Vernon, in the rest of Keelut’s inhabitants, Giraldi has crafted as expert an image as any of absolute otherness—an otherness that is all the more striking for not relying (as, for example, Conrad’s does in Heart of Darkness) on racial stereotyping. In Hold the Dark, it is simply that the place shapes the person—a fact Core himself realizes when he wonders what it would be like to be from Keelut, “every molecule formed by its rhythms.” There may well be, as Core says of the Alaskan wilderness, knowable “patterns” just beneath the surface of the town, but to an outsider, both the people and the place must remain largely unknown.

And yet for all that, there are deep, primal, and eerily recognizable patterns at work in Hold the Dark. A hint of original sin hovers over much of the novel, though what it is, where it came from, and what kind of redemption is possible are all questions that prove difficult to answer. Certainly, the characters seem to bear the burdens of cultural memory—a violent inheritance that dates back to the first time the wolves entered Keelut during a deadly outbreak of influenza. “That is the history here” one woman tells Vernon when he comes to her, eager for revenge. She continues: “[That is] our history. …You cannot blame an old woman for that.” Perhaps not, but then again, are Vernon and Medora at all answerable for the novel’s events, or are they too the victims of circumstance, their fate “foretold in the ice”?

This blurred line between destiny and personal responsibility is the cornerstone of many a tragedy. So too is a “warp in the fabric of things”—a distortion of the natural order so immense that it can only be set right at great cost. But while a kind of order is restored in Hold the Dark, the catharsis the novel offers is an uneasy one; when it is nature itself that gives rise to such violence in the first place, it is hard to escape the feeling that the pattern will simply repeat itself, and that all judgments and condemnations are misplaced. Early in the novel, Core tries to convince Medora that what happened to Bailey is neither moral nor immoral, but simply a law of nature; “They’re just hungry wolves,” he says, “It’s no myth. …No one’s cursed.” But in Hold the Dark, as Core learns, the humans are as wild as the wolves; what “myths,” then, can be told about them? In the end, Core recognizes that stories can never capture the “truth” of what happened in Keelut, but feels compelled to tell one all the same. Thankfully, Giraldi must himself have felt the pull of a similar compulsion; Hold the Dark may be a strange and unsettling read, but it is a deeply satisfying one nonetheless.


Hold the Dark was published in September 2014 by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company.

Buy it: Hold the Dark on Amazon.

Read more about it: Hold the Dark on Goodreads



Filed under Book Reviews, Books I've Read (and Thought About)

4 responses to “Book Review: Hold the Dark by William Giraldi

  1. Great review! I think this one may make it’s way on to the TBR… 🙂

    • Thanks! And as for the book–it’s well worth it. I was tempted to devote the entire review just to gushing about Giraldi’s prose, and I had to restrain myself when it came to the quotations. If I do any sort of “best of” list at the end of the year, I’m anticipating that this will be on it!

  2. That’s a fantastic review – has convinced me to buy it! Do you ever review indie novels in the humour genre? I ask because I’ve recently published and will be looking for some reviews.

    • Thank you (and I hope it doesn’t disappoint!). To answer your question: occasionally. Humor isn’t a genre I read a ton of, just because I’m very picky when it comes to what I find funny, but I’m definitely open to it if the blurb grabs me.

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