Every once in a while, a debut novel is born into the world singing notes so unexpectedly pitch-perfect and melodic that reading it feels like a marvel.
Such is the case with Kawai Strong Washburn’s “Sharks In the Time of Saviors,” an epic family saga that nimbly weaves together threads of familial and cultural legend, of human connection and loss, class and capitalism, the meaning of home, all with prose that flows over the reader in a warm, welcome current.
Spanning from 1995 through 2009, “Sharks” follows the Flores family: Malia and Augie, and their children Dean, Nainoa and Kaui. The book opens with a miracle: 7-year-old Noa falls overboard into shark-infested waters of the Pacific, and is safely delivered back to his family in a shark’s jaws. The consequences of this moment ripple throughout the family’s lives as they grow older, and as life vines its way around and through them in its myriad of unexpected ways.
For one: After the shark incident, Noa seems blessed with a healing power.
As a child and young adolescent, his cash-strapped parents, left in the dust by Hawaii’s collapsed sugarcane industry, capitalize on Noa’s mysterious gifts. But “big destiny is a thing you get drunk on,” and soon Noa feels the burden of his supposed fate. The Flores family is not immune to financial realities of colonialist capitalism, and it must navigate ebbing and flowing economic hardships.
The siblings eventually scatter to the mainland. Noa’s older brother Dean, a basketball star, goes to college in Spokane on an athletic scholarship, only to be faced with his own harsh realities, eventually leading him into the depths of a racist prison-industrial complex. Noa’s younger sister, Kaui, goes to college in San Diego, where her brilliant mind keeps her at the top of her class and her body and heart become shaped by rock climbing — and by her awakening queerness. Noa himself becomes a paramedic in Portland, Oregon, only to find he cannot outrun the burden of a destiny real or imagined (or somewhere in between), and returning home to Hawaii after a tragedy he cannot shake.
Alternating points of view between Dean, Noa, Kaui and Malia, Washburn proves himself a true master of the ensemble novel, perfectly manifesting the voice of each character. Each narrative is not only utterly immersive and believable, but a shining example of how different family members are from each other, while simultaneously embodying the things that make them one. Even as they drift closer and farther away from each other like buoys on a white-capped sea, they remain tethered.
As a character study, “Sharks in the Time of Saviors” is luminous; as a family portrait, even more so. As an epic, the book radiates a devotion to the vastness and mystery of the human condition.
Each character, not least the character of Hawaii itself, is rendered with reverence and an eye toward richness. Washburn’s sensuous prose is a gift; like the characters in the book, it both immerses the reader and leaves them searching — searching within, for what maps and stories we live by.
“Scrape all the sound from the sky and this is what is left,” Washburn writes. “The sound of now.”
Washburn’s debut is intensely readable, paced so well that its nearly 400 pages fly by feverishly. The plot(s) take mysterious and compelling turns that this reviewer refuses to spoil. But perhaps the most lasting aspect of this story is how deeply it engages with the ways people find and create meaning.
“If a god is a thing that has absolute power over us, then in this world there are many,” Washburn writes. “There are gods that we choose and gods that we can’t avoid; there are gods that we pray to and gods that prey on us; there are dreams that become gods and pasts that become gods and nightmares that do, as well.” Perhaps there is no greater kernel by which to understand humanity. What do we worship, and why? How much of a choice do we have?
Ultimately, Malia’s character concludes, “Hope can be a god as well. It’s something that can be prayed to.”
“Sharks In the Time of Saviors” by Kawai Strong Washburn, MCD, 384 pp.