Whalefall is a scientifically accurate thriller about a scuba diver who’s been swallowed by an eighty-foot, sixty-ton sperm whale and has only one hour to escape before his oxygen runs out.
Jay Gardiner has given himself a fool’s errand—to find the remains of his deceased father in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Monastery Beach. He knows it’s a long shot, but Jay feels it’s the only way for him to lift the weight of guilt he has carried since his dad’s death by suicide the previous year.
The dive begins well enough, but the sudden appearance of a giant squid puts Jay in very real jeopardy, made infinitely worse by the arrival of a sperm whale looking to feed. Suddenly, Jay is caught in the squid’s tentacles and drawn into the whale’s mouth where he is pulled into the first of its four stomachs. He quickly realizes he has only one hour before his oxygen tanks run out—one hour to defeat his demons and escape the belly of a whale.
I understand this may sound like hyperbole, but for me, ‘Whalefall’ epitomises the magic of writing and storytelling. On face value, a story about a diver being swallowed by a whale that follows his desperate attempts against the clock to escape is creative and exciting. Of course being eaten by a whale is not realistic, but that doesn’t matter. When you are on the edge of your seat hoping against hope that Jay can escape before his oxygen runs out, realism and relatability does not come into it. ‘Whalefall’ could have easily just been a dramatic thriller with a memorable premise; ‘Whalefall’ is in fact both of these things, but it is also so much more.
‘Whalefall’ is a deep dive (sorry) into Jay Gardiner, in his late teens, and his troubled relationship with his father who recently passed away. It is an unrelenting journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and healing. The story absolutely flies by and very much felt fever dream-like in its fast paced and constantly moving format. The story follows Jay in the present, but this timeline is constantly punctured by fleeting memories that Jay has, often of his father Mitt. Jay gradually and painfully unlocks his most painful and repressed memories in his bid to escape the whale.
Kraus presents a father son relationship plagued by stubbornness and tinged with regret. It soon becomes clear that Jay’s perspective of Mitt, although perfectly valid, is not the generally accepted opinion. Mitt may be flawed, but he is not the monster that Jay perceives. Their relationship is hampered by very real and very common issues: the weight of expectation, the inability to communicate empathetically and openly, and a desire to mould the child in the parent’s image. Jay and Mitt just aren’t compatible and it is tragic that even Mitt’s death cannot resolve this, instead it takes a sperm whale to finally thaw the ice and sow the peace between father and son.
I would be remiss in talking about ‘Whalefall’ without mentioning the story’s setting. I was so incredibly immersed in Jay’s diving experience. Kraus does a great job at painting a picture that very few of us are ever likely to see: the deep dark of the ocean. I have little to no knowledge of sea life and the ocean, but I truly felt like I began to understand what the experience would be like if I was there. I did struggle somewhat with the descriptive writing to do with being inside the whale. I think I just struggled to picture what such a wild setting would truly look like, even with Kraus’ vivid and in-depth descriptions. In a way this added to the narrative: as Jay, vulnerable and lost, struggled to come to grips with his surroundings, I was very much in the same boat.
In such a short span of time, Daniel Kraus achieves so much. I promise that anyone who picks up this book will feel the full spectrum of emotions between beginning and end, and really, I am not sure we can ask for any more than that.