Book Review: Hold Fast by Spencer K.M. Brown

Hold Fast was published in 2022 by Wiseblood books. The paperback is 321 pages.

Spencer K.M. Brown’s novel, Hold Fast, tells a story of life after loss and the ways in which we deny ourselves the space to grieve, even with those who share our pain. The unexpected loss of his wife sends Thom Algonquin further into himself, the distance between him and his son growing wider the longer they resist acknowledging their shared bereavement. Hold Fast is a beautifully written meditation on the power of acceptance and surrender told through a father and son learning to navigate their grief despite a shared, stubborn resistance. Living in the in-between, amid the stuckness of grief, both men come to realize that just as the lake mirrors the sky, so too do father and son mirror each other.

Compounded with the loss of his mother, Thom’s son Jude must come to terms with a career-ending injury rerouting his future as an Olympic rower. Living together on the shore of Lake Superior, Thom and Jude find themselves at an impasse, unable to return to the life they knew and unwilling to face their pain head on to reach the other side of suffering. When Thom decides to row 350 miles across the Lake, both men are forced to reckon with the half-life they’ve been living and find a way to sit with the pain they’ve denied for too long. Thom and Jude must learn to move through their numbness together, giving each other permission to soften their hearts and hold fast to one another.

Having followed Brown’s Instagram for a while, I went into this book with a slightly biased assumption that I would enjoy it. This assumption was based mostly on the photos he would post of his son asleep in his arms with his yellow legal pad full of beautiful cursive writing. The wholesomeness and inspiration to find the time to do what you love even as the seasons of our lives shift and change is such a challenging and beautiful aspect of being a creative. This old-school approach further allows the echoes of such writers as Whitman, Faulkner, and Thoreau to permeate his writing without ever feeling imitative. Brown writes as a well-read author; his insights and lyricism are an amalgamation of all that he’s absorbed from fellow writers, filtered through his own pen. Hold Fast is an open-hearted, intimate look at the human instinct to resist pain, only to realize that too often the only way out is through. It’s the kind of story that holds a mirror to the reader, offering a reflection of the collective experience we all somehow convince ourselves is ours and ours alone.

One of my favorite aspects of literary fiction is the blending of poetry and prose, the borrowed lyrics or phrases of authors past, and the newness that is born from this blending. In Hold Fast, I hear Thoreau and his meditations on nature – “Forests are strange things. Living, breathing things. In them there is life, death, communication, community, preservation. We may like to think of the world, of human life and its all-consuming day-to-dayness, as separate from nature. We tend to forget: we are nature.” (p. 4) There are hints of Whitman and the dissolving of the self into the universal, collective you; the you that contains multitudes.  “So long he has looked and stood apart from all of what he sees. Now, he sits, silent, listening. He empties himself with light, with the landscape, until he becomes a part of this morning view.” (p. 317) The beauty of the prose and the atmosphere it conjures brought to mind the song Holocene by Bon Iver. Someway, baby, it’s part of me, apart from me … and at once I knew, I was not magnificent …

Brown’s use of both literary and poetic devices throughout the novel work in conjunction to reiterate the feeling of stuckness Thom and Jude find themselves in. There is a patience to the pacing of the novel – a foreshadowing that eases in but leaves the reader waiting for what’s to come, worried just enough to create tension. The use of present tense even when recalling a moment from the past, creates an involvement with the reader without crossing into confusion or misunderstanding. There is a mysticism to his use of repetition throughout, creating the feeling of a third narrative voice that belongs to neither Thom nor Jude, but rather the story itself. The theme of non-existence takes on a slightly new significance each time it comes up. “Sometimes, he wishes he didn’t exist. Not to disappear completely. But not to exist, like how animals or forests don’t exist. To detach from his soul for a moment, to drift along unmoored from is body. He’d come back at some point.” (p.8). And later: “Sometimes Thom Algonquin wishes he could not exist for a few minutes. Not die, not disappear completely. Just pause his existence for a minute or two. To float adrift in that quiet on and on. To move like the wind moves and cover the earth. He’d come back when he was ready.” (p. 56) The quotes are nearly the same but slightly different, conveying to the reader this is an ever-present, ever-evolving feeling for Thom; a recurring feeling the story’s voice reassures its reader is a collective experience of how it feels to be a human being, and not something that isolates or sets them apart for having felt.

Most impressive to me was the decision to write Thom’s chapters in third person omniscient narration and Jude’s in first, until the closing section of the novel titled Icebreakers. Here, Brown switches to the third person omniscient voice for Jude, a decision that feels representative of the mirrored relationship of father and son. Thom and Jude have separated themselves from their grief and therefore from each other for the last year. Thom’s harrowing decision to row the Lake causes each man to face and lean into his grief, ultimately seeing that it is and will always be a part of both men; a shared sadness they cannot carry alone.

A master of “show don’t tell” Brown’s distinct internal voices for both Thom and Jude establish their respective approaches to life. For example, Jude’s existential thoughts on being a dishwasher: “Washing dishes takes nothing from you, asks nothing of you. It gives you back a place that is no place, allows you to exchange somewhere for nowhere, if you can get through to that other side…It takes patience to get through the crushing boredom, the misery of it. To accept that you will remain in hibernation for a good while, patience is needed. And it is only recently that I’ve realized what true patience is. It begins at the edge of suffering, on the brink of losing all hope.” (p. 145) And a line from Thom that made me laugh out loud: “Just walking through the doors is soul-crushing. All hope abandon, ye who enter here, he thinks. Thom walks through the entrance of Walmart anyway.” (p. 133)

Novels like Hold Fast reignite the English major in me and the consequent overindulgence of quoting and close reading and underlining passages and allllll that good stuff. Luckily Spencer K.M. Brown is the author of another novel I look forward to reading, Move Over Mountain, as well as a newly released book of poetry, Cicada Rex, both of which can be found on his website. My literature-loving heart couldn’t be happier. I also forgot to mention that I noticed the inside cover credits his wife Amanda as the genius behind the gorgeous cover design – wholesomeness abounds!

Thanks for taking some time to read my words about books. I’ll leave you with a few photos of Dante finally contributing to this household as a book model, and, as always, thanks for being here.

Happy reading!


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