Review: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

It seems wrong to say that I ‘enjoyed’ such an extremely depressing book, but here we are.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

In 1995 Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on a rare family vacation, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls overboard a cruise ship into the Pacific Ocean. When a shiver of sharks appears in the water, everyone fears for the worst. But instead, Noa is gingerly delivered to his mother in the jaws of a shark, marking his story as the stuff of legends.

Nainoa’s family, struggling amidst the collapse of the sugarcane industry, hails his rescue as a sign of favor from ancient Hawaiian gods–a belief that appears validated after he exhibits puzzling new abilities. But as time passes, this supposed divine favor begins to drive the family apart: Nainoa, working now as a paramedic on the streets of Portland, struggles to fathom the full measure of his expanding abilities; further north in Washington, his older brother Dean hurtles into the world of elite college athletics, obsessed with wealth and fame; while in California, risk-obsessed younger sister Kaui navigates an unforgiving academic workload in an attempt to forge her independence from the family’s legacy.

When supernatural events revisit the Flores family in Hawai’i–with tragic consequences–they are all forced to reckon with the bonds of family, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival.

My thoughts

As I read the first few chapters, I honestly didn’t know if I was going to stick with this book. The style of writing took a bit to get used to, but somewhere in Nainoa’s first chapter, I was completely hooked.

This book is very well written: lyrical and lush prose, every chapter told from the POV of one of the members of Nainoa’s family. Each character is so well developed, it gets to the point you don’t need the chapter titles to tell you which character is speaking—they are each so distinct and original.

Nainoa, with his eventful conception, his childhood rescue from drowning BY sharks, and his magical abilities, is the center of the story, but at the same time, it’s not really about just him. We spend a lot of time in the heads of his mother Malia, brother Dean, and sister Kauwi.

This is the story of a poor Hawaiian family. It’s the story of imperfect parents trying to do their best for their children, and those children trying to navigate their own way in life. It’s Nainoa trying to understand the purpose of his gift, and his siblings trying to understand where they fit in relation to their special brother. It’s a story rich in descriptions of Hawai’i and legends of the gods of the island. The magical realism is perfectly done, and the touches of magic actually serve to make the rest of the story seem all the more real. Sharks in the Time of Saviors isn’t a happy, feel-good story, but it still left me hopeful and made me smile more than once.

Kawai Strong Washburn has written a very powerful debut. I’m endlessly impressed with his storytelling, especially how he was able to write such a believable female character in Malia. I sometimes struggle with the way male authors write a woman’s POV, but not here. I love this passage from one of Malia’s chapters so much:

It’s an impossible thing to explain, motherhood. What is lost, the blood and muscle and bone that are drawn from your body to feed and breathe a new life into the world. The bulldozer of exhaustion that hits in the first trimester, the nauseous clamps of the mornings, the warping and swelling and splitting open of everything previously taut or delicate, until your body is no longer yours but something you must survive. But those are only the physical. It’s what comes after that takes more. Whatever part of me flowed into you from my body, it turned us tight into two people that shared a soul. I believe that of all my children. Fathers will never understand the way you get deep in us, so deep that there’s a part of me that remains, always, a part of you, no matter where you go. For all the sleepless nights you bludgeoned us with your mewls for milk, for all the car rides you screamed through, the scrapes and cuts and shrieking afternoons at the mall, feverish nights I’d have to hold you to my chest and feel the butterfly flap of your lungs trying to fight off the fever, the shit stains on the sheets Christmas morning and the broken wrist on our anniversary-dinner-reservation night … despite all that, there was still something of unprecedented perfection underneath.

This book is getting mixed reviews, but I highly recommend to those who like strong, lyrical literary fiction with a healthy dose of magical realism. It’s not a hearts-and-flowers happy story, but it’s so worth the journey.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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