Kawai Strong Washburn – Sharks in the Time of Saviours
- Deborah Chu
- 1 April 2020
A lyrical debut intertwining magical realism and domestic drama in the lush green valleys of Hawaii
Set on the islands of Hawaii and the west coast of the United States, Kawai Strong Washburn's debut is a potent family saga that explores the enduring, life-giving power of indigenous Hawaiian traditions under the unforgiving pressures of present day socio-economic realities. When young Nainoa Flores is rescued from drowning by a shiver of sharks, his family – particularly his mother, Malia – believe his salvation to be a sign of favour from the old gods of Hawaii.
Indeed, as Nainoa grows up, he begins to exhibit inexplicable powers as an empath and healer. But poverty and deep-seated resentment towards their divinely-favoured brother drive simmering divisions between Nainoa and his siblings, Dean and Kaui – each of whom, in their own way, strive to find a way to protect and provide for their family, even as they leave the islands to seek better opportunities on the American mainland.
Though Nainoa's personality sometimes feels subsumed under the fact of his supernatural powers, Washburn masterfully inhabits the voices of Dean and Kaui, painting a complex portrait of the jealousy, competition and love that sustains the Flores siblings. The great strength of the novel, however, is Washburn's use of language, which is deeply attuned to the sensual life of all things: this is a world where fridge doors smooch, reefs sing, the rainforest breathes and the valleys of the Flores' home teem with the spirits of ancient legends.
Though this lyricism is a sublime evocation of the islands, oftentimes the story feels buried under such heavy, self-conscious prose, especially as there is a dearth of historical scene-setting. Tensions between indigenous Hawaiians and the colonial industries that have monopolised their home – from the exploitation of the islands' natural riches for sugar plantations, to the commodification of hula – is gestured towards, but never fully explained. For a story that wishes to explore the contemporary fall-out from decades of American colonisation, and excavate historical and cultural truths from stereotype, a deeper dive into Hawaii's difficult relationship to the mainland would bring the Flores' struggles and the significance of Nainoa's powers into greater relief.