“Big destiny is a thing you get drunk on,” Kawai Strong Washburn writes in his sweeping, effervescent debut novel. The expectation for a grand destiny rests on Nainoa Flores, the youngest son in a native Hawaiian family. He fell off a boat when he was 7 but was rescued by sharks and returned to his mother, gingerly, in their jaws. Nainoa goes on to excel in all subjects, from math to ukulele, and evinces mysterious healing powers.
“Sharks in the Time of Saviors” incorporates magic but focuses on the real repercussions for the family of a boy tasked with an unbearable burden to use his gifts to save his home and people. Greatness, as Washburn explores, has a way of dissipating.
Washburn tells the story in alternating perspectives from the members of the family. Besides Nainoa, there’s Malia and Augie Flores, the hardworking, financially struggling parents who conceive Nainoa outdoors on a night when they witness “the night marchers,” a supernatural troop of ancient Hawaiian royals processing along a ridge, carrying torches. There’s Dean, the oldest son, who distinguishes himself in basketball but little else, and Kaui, the youngest, who rivals Nainoa in intelligence and achievement even as he continually eclipses her.
One of the primary delights of this novel is the singular voice that Washburn creates for each of his narrators. He writes with verve and laces their language with wit and Hawaiicisms. Nainoa earns “shaka respect from every local that heard the shark story and felt the old gods in it.” People donate much needed money to the family. The difficulty that native Hawaiians experience in surviving on the expensive islands is a strong theme. As Kaui puts it, “It became like a prayer at our house, Our Father who art in debt collection, hallowed be thy pay.”
The community believes Nainoa’s magic might elevate conditions for all and rekindle respect for old traditions, but no one seems to know exactly how to achieve this. This novel questions the idea of any savior — an exceptional figure a community looks to as a leader, whether it’s an athlete, an engineer or a healer. As the novel takes somber turns, with the three Flores children scattered, pursuing college degrees on the mainland, it suggests that everyone who seeks change must contribute to it instead of waiting for a mythic guru.
Washburn’s reverence and longing for the land and traditions of Hawaii is so strong you might catch homesickness even if you’re a haole (non-Hawaiian) who does strange things like butter your rice and leave your shoes on indoors. This novel graces the reader with the spirit of Hawaii, from its fragrant forests to its cultural traditions, and feels, despite its undercurrent of sadness, like a dose of tropical sun.
Jenny Shank’s novel, “The Ringer,” won the High Plains Book Award. She teaches in the Mile High MFA Program and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Washington Post and the Atlantic.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors
By: Kawai Strong Washburn.
Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 376 pages, $27.
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