Hold The Dark by William Giraldi

I've seen Hold The Dark billed as a 'literary thriller'. I don't think this is a particularly accurate description, however. It begins with the investigation of a death, but there's no mystery as such - at least, not the type of mystery that would characterise a thriller.

William Giraldi's short, sparse novel opens with three children being killed by wolves in the remote Alaskan village of Keelut. Medora Slone, the mother of the third child to be taken and now grieving alone while her soldier husband Vernon serves in the Middle East, contacts a nature writer and wolf expert Russell Core to track and kill the wolf thought to have carried off her young son, Bailey.

It's clear from the start that Medora is at best unstable, while Core himself, his wife semi-comatose in a nursing home and his daughter estranged, is also suffering from obvious depression. Keelut itself is a bleak, isolated community which, as is pointed out to Core, has little in common with the Alaska of, say, Anchorage or Juneau. Keelut feels like a dangerous frontier settlement beyond the edge of civilisation, with all the lawlessness and insularity this entails. The further into the empty wilderness of the Arctic tundra the characters travel, the less humane - and the less human - they seem to become. There is a great deal of violence in this novel, and a great deal of strange otherness; shamanistic practices, psychogeography and ancient superstitions abound, interspersed with senseless brutality.

Giraldi counteracts the outright weirdness of the characters' behaviour with a terse, matter-of-fact prose style that has echoes of Cormac McCarthy. This is effective at times, but there is a problem for me in that no matter how odd and unsettling things are, we rarely see any kind of realistic reaction either from Core or from Donald Marium, the police detective whose role, like Core's, is be the outsider's point of view when it comes to Keelut and its people. Blunt, unadorned sentences describing shocking behaviour or bizarre remarks are one thing, but it's quite another for such behaviour or speech to go unchallenged, even unacknowledged, by other characters, and I began to find this frustrating and jarring as the novel progressed.

Hold The Dark is at times a fascinating and well-crafted novel. However, for me its strengths lie in the depiction of the Arctic landscape and its effect on the communities scratching a living within it, rather than in the individual characters or plot (there is, in fact, very little plot, and a revelation about Medora and Vernon that comes towards the end of the story is far from unexpected). Keelut's men are almost entirely forces of elemental anger and violence; its women are solely there to be mysterious, dangerous 'seers' with odd powers of prediction and manipulation. Core and Marium, incomers from a more comprehensible world, stray dangerously close to cliche.



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