Sharks in the Time of Saviours by Kawai Strong Washburn

Kawai Strong Washburn's debut novel blends Hawaiian myths and magic realism

Book Review by Eugenie Johnson | 30 Mar 2020
  • Sharks in the Time of Saviours
Book title: Sharks in the Time of Saviours
Author: Kawai Strong Washburn

When he is seven years old, Nainoa Flores is saved from drowning by sharks in Kailua-Kona, Hawai'i. It’s an event that becomes the springboard from which Sharks in the Time of Saviours, Kawai Strong Washburn’s first novel, launches its examination of the family’s fortunes in the wake of the sugar cane industry’s collapse. 

Washburn’s narrative is structured something like a bildungsroman, following the three Flores siblings (Nainoa, Dean and Kaui) as they grow from children into adults, told both from their multiple perspectives and, occasionally, that of their mother, Malia. What keeps the narrative consistently engaging is how developed each of the main characters feels. Not only do they have their own unique voices (Dean is more colloquial, Nainoa more self-reflective), but their feelings towards each other are also skilfully reflected in their respective segments (Malia’s sections are almost exclusively centred on Nainoa, much to Dean and Kaui’s annoyance). 

What results is a story that blends Hawaiian myths and elements of magic realism with insightful examinations of the changing nature of relationships and identity, both with each other and with Hawai'i itself as the siblings’ paths diverge on mainland America. Washburn doesn’t shy away from issues of poverty as the family struggles or how the idea of salvation on the mainland becomes hollow. Kaui sums it up best: “No more saviours, okay? This is just life.” 

Canongate, £16.99, 2 Apr