Contemporary Literature · Magical Realism

Sharks in the Time of Saviors

I first, and really only, saw this one posted about by @readingismagical on bookstagram. And there was something about the vibe of the title/cover/blurb, plus her super positive review, that made me feel like I was going to like it. Additionally, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by a native Hawaiian before. And now that my brother lives in Hawaii (and pending COVID-time rules we’re going to visit him at the beginning of December!) this seemed like the perfect time to fix that. AHHHHH, I just remembered, I read and LOVED Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T. Kira Madden. But that just reinforces me wanting to read this, I think, because that was SO GOOD.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

“…and I am the blood that pumps inside and I am the sand that was blown to life with the breath of all our gods and I am the wet mud of the valley and I am the green that grows from within it. I am the shore the drift of the world underwater and I am the shatter the wave throws over. I am the atmosphere that heats the thunderheads and I am the cool rain the thirsty soil reclaims. I am the flex that drives the arm of the wayfinder the planter the carver. I am the beat that drives the hips of the hula. I am the spark that starts the child’s heart and I am the last beat from the elders.”

This is a story of a family, a land and a heritage. When young Nainoa falls in the water during a family vacation and is rescued by sharks, his name, his family become famous across the islands. Noa’s mother Malia, believes this rescue and later “special” abilities that Noa develops are signs of blessings from the ancient Hawaiian gods. But the pressure placed on Noa to continuously be special, along with the feelings of resentment from his siblings Dean and Kaui, despite their own skills/promise, drive the family apart. Years later, all three children are on the mainland but the legacy of Noa’s abilities and presence, their connections (as a family) to the land and history of Hawaii, are still hauntingly strong. And when a tragedy forces the family to truly reckon with this legacy, their roles and relationships with each other will face some major changes.

This novel was incredibly spiritually touching. It highlighted the strength one can find in belief and connections to the past/the land, while also showing the pain and difficulty that such strong beliefs can cause for those around them. I loved that juxtaposition because I know how important faith is to many people (though I do not have that myself) and have also seen how that intense faith can be both comforting to them and harmful to others in myriad ways. It’s difficult to recognize and discuss and Washburn handles that with aplomb. The other complexity that I thought was gorgeously portrayed here was family relationships, siblings specifically. The subtle interplays between the three siblings, the roles they hold internally and externally, as well as the way they feel about those roles, felt so genuine (and recognizable) to me. The familiarity of the dual annoyance and support, mixed with some resentment and complicated by parental treatment, that flows amongst them is so familiar and so beautifully described. It’s clear but never over the top, emotional but never to an extreme or just to serve the greater plot/story. 

Sort of hand in hand, I also want to mention the quality of the writing and the focus on honor for one’s homeland and ancestors. There was a lyrical, magical, almost surreal quality to the writing. It had a current, a flow, to it that sort of folded you into its rhythm. I found large sections of this book went by so quickly once I picked it up, because I was carried by the words. And even though many tough topics were covered, many challenging moments of daily life and greater strife, the writing never lost that vibe, which I felt and appreciated deeply. Like I said, I feel like this really should be discussed alongside the way history and land were talked about, because the deep connection to Hawaiian heritage was such an important, focal, point of this novel. It is so clear through his characters that respect and love for Hawaii, Hawaiian culture, and being a part of something larger as a Hawaiian, is paramount for Washburn. That theme runs strong throughout this book, perhaps existing/emerging in different ways or at different times for each character, but present for each in their own way. 

There was an understated and slow burn quality to the development of the characters over the length of the novel, but by the end this portrait of a family, with all its ugliness and harsh realities and strength and support, is seared into the mind of the reader. And I truly felt the life of Hawaii’s landscape and history alive within these pages. What a debut!


A few lovely passages that I marked while reading:

“My time as a mother was the same as those last gasping breaths of the owl, and soon enough you’d have to gently set down my love, fold it up into the soil of your childhood, and move beyond.”

“‘We miss all of you,’ she said. And I said I did, too – and I did. But feeling it then, the missing was different than I expected. Less desperate, I guess. And getting smaller all the time.”

“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.”

“If 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 pasts that become gods and nightmares that do, as well. As I age I learn that there are more gods than I’ll never know, and yet I have to watch for all of them, or else they can use me or I can lose them without realizing it.”

“Sometimes you know when a day is going to stay inside you for a long time.”  

“If someone were to ask me what money means this would be what I would say: The world feels like it will stay under you no matter what you do.”

“Long time I told myself things was gonna be different. Maybe all that was a dumb fucking dream from the start. Maybe it wasn’t never supposed for be anything but like this.”

“…something is turning in us. What we are to each other. After all this time away, the island can still never be anything but my home, and I can never be anything but her daughter.”

6 thoughts on “Sharks in the Time of Saviors

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