Book Review: Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors

Sharks in the Time of SaviorsSharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I spent summers in Hawaii as a child, while we were visiting my grandmother. It took me many years to realise that the Hawaiian culture had been coopted to promote tourism, while the Hawaiian people were often in pretty desperate situations, suffering from the same issues as Indigenous communities around the world. So, I was definitely interested in reading about a Hawaiian family in what advanced reviews called magic realism and many, many strong reviews (which seem much more positive overall than the reviews on Goodreads).

While I was pleased to recognise the local language (we were fascinated as kids with the pidgin dialect) and references to local stores and cultures, I went back and forth on this. There are wonderful, luminous poetic passages, and while the earthy scenes of sex seem to have put off some other readers, I thought they had an energy about them. But I did find that the characters fluctuated between elevated, poetic language and the local dialect, in a way that didn’t quite work for me. And the brother who spoke in the most vernacular and was least book smart (but perhaps most street smart): I didn’t find it all that compelling to spend time with him. The sister was smarter, but as a gay man, I didn’t find her struggles with her sexuality and identity to go very deep. And perhaps a purposeful weakness of the characters but I found they referred back nostalgically too often to their ‘hanabata’, ‘small kid’ days.

I won’t spoil the structure of the book for those who haven’t read it, but I did like the way that it subverted expectations, expanding a story focused on one family member to all of his family members. And I think the sense of the healing power of a culture, of old gods, of tuning into one’s heritage did work.

So, I found it OK in all, not great (for me) but I’m glad that the book seems to be finding an audience and has gotten some great reviews. It’s good to hear from new voices.

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