Whalefall by Daniel Kraus
MTV Books (August 8, 2023)
336 pages; $27.99 hardcover; $14.99 e-book
Reviewed by Dave Simms
What is a whalefall? A spoiler would be cruel, so steer clear of any marine biology sites until the end. What Whalefall the book is cannot be contained in the definition of the word readers will discover late in the story. What can be said is that this is one of the most intense — and moving — stories that will grace the bookstores in 2023. It’s bound to make the year’s “best of” lists, which is quite the feat on its own, yet what Daniel Kraus has created here is something that can’t be quantified.
Kraus became known to many readers by his collaborations with George Romero (The Living Dead) and Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water and Trollhunters), an astounding accomplishment on its own. Yet Kraus is much more than that. Just dive into The Ghost That Ate Us or other works which have garnered him a ton of great press. Yes he does horror, yet by scrolling through his Amazon page it’s readily apparent that the man can nail whatever story he sets his mind to, regardless of the genre.
That’s important, as Whalefall doesn’t fit neatly into any box. Early critics have compared it to 127 Hours and The Martian but that’s an understatement. Listings categorize the novel as literary fiction, drama, adventure, science fiction, horror, and more. It’s both all of that and not quite any of it.
The story seems simple enough. Seventeen-year-old Jay Gardiner sets off on a dangerous quest: to find his father’s bones off the coast of Monastery Beach (aka Mortuary Beach). His relationship with his dad was more tumultuous than any ocean storm, and likely just as complicated. Jay refused to meet with the man prior to his suicide, a final spike in the calloused heart fostered by the man.
Mitt Gardiner existed as an enigma, a master of diving and the sea, yet he couldn’t hold down a job — or give his son the bond he needed. The chance of finding Mitt’s body is minute, yet Jay’s willing to risk it, and soon hears his father’s voice in his head, urging him on, critiquing him, and reaching out.
When he tangles with a giant squid, which becomes prey for a bigger creature, the story takes off. The sperm whale, the only natural enemy of the squid, attacks it and Jay finds himself trapped, caught on the creature itself. Minutes later, he’s belly deep in the massive whale and this is where the comparisons will come into play.
The rest of this suspenseful, claustrophobic tale speeds by as Jay discovers he has only an hour’s worth of air — not to mention how to figure out how to escape the whale itself.
Teetering between the adventure of how to crawl free, finding even more dangers within the beast, and the tense memories of that smothering, toxic relationship, Whalefall manages to pull off the balance of tearing at emotions while amping up the adrenaline. The pace is perfect, something worthy of an award itself, as this could’ve have easily leaned into simple horror, adventure, or drama.
Kraus’ writing is merciless. It snags the heart while wrenching the stress from the reader.
There will be many an article about this book, but there’s only one way to truly understand the hype.
Highly recommended as this will end up on the top of charts in various lists. This makes my top three novels of the year.