The Abyssal Zone, the layer of the ocean so deep it is in complete darkness, is 83% of the total ocean and 60% of the Earth’s surface. That’s right – more than half of the planet is in complete darkness all the time.
When people ask me what I’m scared of, “the ocean” is rarely on that list.
But that changed when I read Whalefall by Daniel Kraus. Whalefall is a thriller about a scuba diver who’s been swallowed by an 80-foot, 60-ton sperm whale and has only one hour to escape before his oxygen runs out. Kraus does an excellent job of explaining the visceral terrors of the ocean and what lurks there.
As is the case with many stories – what “it’s about” is not really what it’s about. Sure, Whalefall is an intense adventure survival story, but it’s also about fearing a parent, the anxiety around losing said parent, and the guilt of not having repaired the relationship with said parent before they were gone. Whalefall is about the unescapable sadness of being a human.
The ocean is a perfect metaphor for these types of feelings.
How often do we refer to bad situations as “coming in waves”? We also tend to “drown” in them until we can eventually “come up for air.” Whalefall is about all this, too.
Humans are about 60% water. 60% of the Earth’s surface is water. It’s not surprising then that we refer to ponds, lakes, and oceans as “bodies of water.” It’s all connected.
I am not scared of the ocean. I fear what the ocean can represent. The ocean is dark, cold, and uncertain.
I fear the dark (both emotional darkness and literal darkness). I fear uncertainty, and while I am not scared of the cold, it is during this cold time of year (which also feels to be at least 83% darkness) that I am most confronted by and reminded of my fears. Just as I am uneasy about what lurks in the darkest depths of the ocean, I am uneasy about what lurks in the darkest depths of people, too.
I fear drowning in all that existential feeling. So, I try to look for lighthouses in my life.
A lighthouse acts as a guiding light. A reminder that we are near solid ground (as rocky as it might be). These can be people, or a faith community, or a hobby, or books. And sometimes, unexpectedly, a book can be both the thing that forces you to dive into your feelings, but also helps guide you through (and maybe even out of) them.
This is where I tell you what Whalefall is really about.
But it also requires a bit of a spoiler – so if you don’t want that – scroll down.
Whalefall is about overcoming despair. The diver, named Jay, is able to eventually escape the whale. He does so having changed – a lot. He is scarred, burned, and missing a limb – but he gets out alive. Although he starts out with that tunnel vision of hopelessness, he eventually finds the strength and resources (in the thing that has caused all of this harm no less) to get himself out. This book is about watching someone come out of a terrible situation – and learning that it is possible to survive. Because if Jay can, you can too.
** End of Spoiler**
Whether you read through the spoiler or skipped it – I want to leave you, reader, with one final thing.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have read a book that is “about” something that you weren’t expecting it to be about – one of the best things you can do is to find someone else who has read it. It allows you to build a sort of support group. Even if your experiences aren’t identical – knowing that there is someone else who was emotionally impacted by the same thing that you read, can be very cathartic – and help to not feel so alone in those feelings.
It has for me anyway.