Victoria’s Book Reviews: Sharks in the Time of Saviours by Kawai Strong Washburn

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Hmmm, this novel is a curious one. It blends a bit of the second coming with the collapse of the American Dream, racism, Hawaiian folklore and myths, and magical realism.

Sharks in the Time of Saviours is undeniably HUGELY ambitious. I marvelled at the confidence of debut novelist, Kawai, to embrace such big themes and wrestle with them to fashion this novel centred around the experience of one impoverished family in Hawaii who are blessed with a miracle – only to se their dreams crushed against the hard rock of capitalism.

Yet, I feel it speaks volumes that I finished this book some weeks ago but it has taken me this long to decide how I feel about the book, consider whether its risk-taking pays off, and even settle on what the book is trying to convey.

“Whenever I’ve made a choice in my life, a real choice…” She leans back from my head. Touches my shoulder just for a second. “I can always feel the change, after I choose. The better versions of myself, moving just out of reach.”

The book begins with a miracle: a young boy, Nainoa Flores, is conceived in Hawaii whilst the spirits and ancient Hawaiian gods are on the march and, seven years later, the same boy is saved from drowning by a shiver of sharks. His parents take these acts as a sign and, sure enough, the young boy begins to perform miracles – healing the sick and providing for his penniless family who are struggling to make ends meet amidst the collapse of the sugar cane industry.

It is a remarkable set-up and you wonder, as you read the gorgeous and poetic prose, where are we heading? What are the themes we are going to explore? Will it be a, ‘what if the second coming happened today’? Perhaps this will also be shot through with racism and how this modern-day Jesus would lift the poor and marginalised of today up from the bottom?

“He said people think force and power is the same thing, but really force is what you use when you don’t got power. I think about me and Noa and I’m like, I been using force my whole life. What does that make me?”

Yet that expected book just falls away.

Instead, this remarkable intro makes way for a series of chapters – all through to the end – on how Nainoa’s siblings (his elder brother and younger sister) struggle in his shadow. Then, more than this, we bear witness to how their attempts to make names for themselves, to find a way out of their poverty, are dashed by structural racism, capitalism and the rock hard line between he rich and the poor.

In the instant moments after I finished the book I was baffled, What had happened to the novel that I was expecting? What happened to that reckoning between the second coming and contemporary society. I was completely at a loss; this was barely a story about Nainoa at all.

And all of this surprises me as there was a lot of expectation around this novel – publishers Canongate acquired the book at auction and it is their leading debut for 2020. They have it billed as, “an epic Hawaiian story of family, exile and the devastating search for salvation, blending Hawaiian myth with the broken American dream”.

That book sounded amazing but it just didn’t seem to fit with what I had read. Was this book guilty of hype? Or did I not get it?

I read parts of the book again, particularly the ones from Noa’s siblings as they struggle to make their way in the world. I wondered whether this was the right focus for the books; shouldn’t it be more on the gifted middle child? And its take on the ‘American Dream’ seemed lost in endless squabbles between parents and children.

Add to that, this second half of the book didn’t seem bolstered with a strong sense of purpose or narrative drive. It is not clear what the plot was – we, after all, have been diverted from the story we expected – but the lives of his siblings were not necessarily interesting or saturated with sufficient conflict to make this 400+-page book a page turner.

What happened to the expected book on what would the second coming look like?

And that’s when I realised – weeks later – that this was exactly the book I had been reading. Perhaps clumsily constructed in parts and a bit too much languid prose, but this was the book Kawai wrote. Not explicitly, but implicitly.

Nothing would change; there would be no impact. Our powers of discrimination and otherism are too well entrenched.

BOOM.

What a revelation.

Kawai captures Hawaiian myths and folklore wonderfully well, and how he weaves this in with the experience of Black Americans and the discrimination faced by the community seems effortless. Sharks in the Time of Saviours is an unusual book – but it is a brave and rare one.

 

Sharks in the Time of Saviours by Kawai Strong Washburn is published by Canongate; hardback RRP £16.99.

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