Three children have been snatched by wolves in the small Alaskan community of Keelut, including the six-year old son of Medora and Vernon Sloane. Wolf expert Russell is called upon to investigate and track the pack responsible, but soon begins to see into the dark psyche of Medora. When her husband Vernon returns from a desert war to discover the boy dead and Medora missing, he begins his own pursuit of his errant wife, across the frozen wastes and with much violence along the way. As Core attempts to intercede in the inevitable collision of husband and wife, he unwittingly unveils a dark secret that exists between them…
During the recent cold snap here in the UK, it seemed entirely appropriate to be reading a novel set in the frozen wastes of the Alaskan tundra. This is a cold, grim and unrelentingly miserable read, but for the most part, I rather enjoyed this grief- filled and violent tale.
Drawing heavily on the naturalistic writing tradition of American literature, Giraldi has produced not only a compelling crime novel, but also one that encompasses a careful study of the human condition. Indeed, at one point in the book there is a direct reference to how to understand the very essence of human nature and behaviour, we should look to the woods and not to the books, and how “the annals of human wisdom fall silent when faced with the feral in us.” There is a primeval simplicity at the heart of the book, as we bear witness to the violence meted out by the Sloanes. With the interweaving of Vernon’s active service abroad, and his pursuit of his wife (taking no prisoners along the way), the central credo of base human emotion drawing on our wilder animalistic instincts comes to the fore throughout. It’s a fascinating psychological study, and although the vast majority of the characters are inherently dislikeable, there is much to be learned and enjoyed about the more base emotions that the characters exhibit in this brutal tale.
Giraldi’s depiction of the wildness of his characters, sits perfectly alongside his portrayal of this unique and bleak location, where everybody’s existence is dictated to by the exacting weather conditions and landscape of this inhospitable place. The community itself exists on the folklore and superstitions of generations past that continue to influence the character’s lives and calling on the spirits of their ancestors to direct their own paths and to deflect evil. There is a sense of other-worldliness throughout the book as we discover the ancient traditions of this society, and set against the vibrant depiction and understanding of the natural world that surrounds them, the folkloric aspect of the book is entirely satisfying.
I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone who was held spellbound by Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, and books of that ilk. I was also much heartened to see an endorsement by Tim O’Brien, a master of the Vietnam fiction genre, as the passages in Hold The Dark dealing solely with Vernon’s army service are powerfully wrought indeed. As I said it’s not a life-affirming or particularly hopeful read, and the sudden bursts of brutal violence are not for all, but I liked it. Very much.
For the inside track on Hold The Dark, read an excellent interview with author William Giraldi at Crime Thriller Fella
(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)