This is a dark book in more ways than one. Not only is the story dark, but so is the landscape in the which the story takes place. After all, there's very little daylight in the small Alaskan village in which Core, a nature writer from the lower forty-eight, finds himself. He's the author of a book about hunting down wolves. Medora, having read the book, writes to him, asking him to come to her village to track down the wolf that has stolen her six year-old son, and, if possible, bring back his remains. All this while Medora's husband, Sloane, has been fighting, presumably in Iraq. Core finds the boy, though not anywhere near where he thought he'd be. Probably best not to say much about the plot, if only because Giraldi has constructed something so taut that every beat and turn seems essential. Suffice it to say, the husband returns, and various murders ensue.
The village where Medora and Sloane live is certainly an eerie place, if only because no one speaks to outsiders and barely to one another. It's a place of snow, myth, superstition, ancient rites and a history that everyone feels but almost no one seems to know, much less articulate. As the days grow shorter and the weather turns increasingly nasty, one realises there's no way this story can possibly end well. Though, with everyone trudging through the snow, from one destination to another, most of them unknown or rarely visited, who can predict the chances of survival, or how order might be brought to a world that has gone so far out of whack.
"What kind of man does this?" asks Core, regarding one of the murders. "The human kind," answers Marium, the chief of police. Because humans are capable of anything. Likewise, animals. Core, "the chosen story-teller," loves wolves, particularly when it comes to their intelligence. And it's only Core who is capable of noting the relationship between animals and humans; specifically, where does the animal end and the human begin, as well as what connects and separates them. Why does Core stay in such a hostile environment? Because, at the core of the story, he can't leave the place until he can get a grip on the village and everything that's happening around him. Besides, he is essential to the story, and, as the wolf chaser, the one able to connect human to animal, protagonist to antagonist, cause to effect. In a book with shifting points of view, Core fights to control the narrative, only to eventually fade away, overtaken by Sloane, definitely part-animal himself.
In Hold the Dark "The dead don't haunt the living. The living haunt themselves." Here everyone, to one degree or another, is out of place and alienated from themselves and those around them. Core might know about wolves, but he doesn't know much about his daughter. Marium knows about policing but hasn't a clue about his wife, or, for that matter, Sloane and the ways of the village. In fact, Marium can't even communicate with these villagers, even though he grew up and works in a small town just a few miles away. Then there's Sloane, who knows about the land and his village, but has no idea about people, including certain secrets held by his wife. While Medura knows very little other than how to survive, and the truth about her child. At least Core feels just how foreign this part of the world is, even if that realisation comes too late. Still, it's only Core who, because of his connection to the wolves, who has tenuous relationship to the village, which Sloane acknowledges with simply a nod of the head.
A bleak, brutal and beautifully written book, its sentences carved in such a way as to make you think nothing like this has been written before. I suppose if authorial comparisons are necessary, one might cite Cormac McCarthy or Daniel Woodrell, but neither, no matter how good such writers are, comes close. Not that Giraldi is better, it's just neither McCarthy or Woodrell could have written Giraldi's novel. In the end, as the sayings go, the map is not the territory, and the plot is not necessarily the story. As the characters in Hold the Dark tell us, it's the lived thing that matters, even if that lived thing can be fully disclosed or understood. Hence the beauty of Giraldi's writing: "She'd want to know all he'd witnessed. She'd want to hear the truth of these events. But he would have for her only a story- one that seemed to have happened half in dream, rent from the regular world he knew- and that story would wear the clothes of truth. Propped up in bed, he prepared himself for this tale. He searched for the beginning, and for the will to believe it."
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.