This fresh, modern novel about a contemporary Hawaiian family creates a stunning and striking story of identity — challenging what the idea of ‘home’ really means, and the struggles we face that are also our greatest, defining moments.
Don’t expect the typical tropes of Hawai’i that you’d see on postcards. The islands are laid bare; poverty and hardship define this family’s journey, but thankfully, never break them.
Sharks in the time of Saviors is the debut novel of Kawai Strong Washburn, an author born and raised in Hawaii who, much like his characters, leaves it behind for the mainland. There is an overwhelming sense of the spirit of Hawai’i’s people wrapped up in Washburn’s prose and premise.
A word to those who enjoy the ‘magical realism’ genre — this is indeed more spiritual and cultural and driven by character than what it may otherwise suggest. In my opinion, it’s what makes this novel so very memorable and worth reading.
Nainoa (Noa) is the middle child of Hawaiian couple Augie and Malia. On a rare family holiday, during a boat tour, Noa falls overboard and is miraculously saved by sharks.
Thus begins a family’s journey with their lives forever changed. Noa’s sudden new abilities to supernaturally heal and hear beyond the physical provide hope for an impoverished family but a burden on his young life and those of his siblings.
The family fractures and struggles become huge. But deep within each member of this family is a call by the spirits of their home to once again embrace the nature and nurture of islands that are are overwhelming in their beauty and power.
Again, I’m torn between the one I had access to locally in Australia and the international version.
The cool, azure blue cover of the audiobook version I listened to calls for you to dive in between the covers.
Yet, I’m lured by the hand-scrawled, orange sunset cover of the international version that dispels with predictable ocean vibes and allows the shark — in an awkward, surrendering angle — to loom large.
I’m a fan of what Washburn is doing here.
He flits between the sweet, sublime writing that allows you to imagine the majesty of Hawaiian nature and heady, angsty dialogue which jolts you back to the realities the family faces.
What results is a complete sense of Hawai’i — not just the beauty of its aesthetic presence but the also the harshness of its societal issues.
It was an added experience to hear these characters telling their tales with Hawaiian accents that made the story feel real and full of power. In particular, I loved Malia’s narrator; she was a force of nature.
As with any book that centres around a fractured family and the longing to come home again, this ending doesn’t tie up in a neat bow.
The protagonist of this novel shifts — leaving the characters that feel invisible to become powerful saviours in their own right.
I felt like it was a lovely and realistic ending.
This is a fresh, radiant book. It’s a side to Hawai’i far from the cultural tropes you’re used to seeing.
It evokes a visceral sense of the realities we don’t see behind the postcards of hula and leis. There’s hardship and poverty but there’s also the deep, beautiful, mystical essence of the place; these themes seep into every character’s story arc and challenge their place in the world.
It seems they can never escape the islands that aren’t just a physical presence but one that’s deep within their spirits.
A stunning debut novel.
If a god is a thing that has absolute power over us, then in this world there are many. 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 nightmares that do, as well. As I age I learn that there are more gods than I’ll ever know, and yet I have to watch for all of them, or else they can use me or I can lose them without even realizing it.
Book Club Questions
Who do you consider the main protagonist of the story?
Whose perspective on family, sacrifice, and saving others do you identify with?
There’s a wrestle between “old Hawai’i” and the modern day realities of the place. How does poverty and hardship influence each character’s relationship with their culture and traditions?
How did your understanding of modern Hawai’i shift throughout?
But that’s the problem with the present, it’s never the thing you’re holding, only the thing you’re watching, later, from a distance so great the memory might as well be a spill of stars outside a window at twilight.
Fable and Fizz would like to acknowledge the Whadjuck Noongar people as the traditional owners and continual custodians on the lands and waters this content is primarily written on. I pay respects to their Elders — past and present. This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.