Reading Through the Awards: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

June 18, 2021

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors, recent winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “In 1995 Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i, 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 the 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.”

Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, begins like this: a hint that someone will die, a tender description of love, and a moment when the boundaries between the real world and the supernatural dissolve. This introduction sets up the momentum that carries us through a story that isn’t really about the legend that defines Nainoa Flores’s life. Instead, Sharks in the Time of Saviors is about the experiences, the pain, and the bonds of the Flores family after the collapse of the sugarcane industry in Hawai’i.

Washburn writes with an unflinching sense of authenticity. He deftly uses the backdrop of Hawai’i to guide the narrative, even as the Flores siblings leave home for the mainland. Each character’s voice is as distinct as the paths they take, from Kaui’s biting wit to Dean’s frank dialect, but their storylines are united by a quiet reminder of the supernatural. Boundaries between the characters and their environments are dissolved with intention; Noa’s healing abilities are described viscerally, but so, too, is Kaui’s connection to the earth as she scales a rock face and Dean’s flow state on the basketball court, “That same king feeling in my chest, ancient and big.” This mysticism is an undercurrent, surging to the forefront of the narrative when the moment is right.

Washburn’s sentences are lyrical and explosive, but his story structure truly shines, even as the narrative progresses through five different perspectives. He balances the gods of legend with the tyrannical gods of modern-day society: money, work, capital. Through matriarch Malia, we see the effects of the “faraway haole man” on the Flores family’s ability to transcend their material circumstances and escape the pull of their homeland. It’s this constant tension between what characters want and what they do, between what they have and what they feel, between what is expected and what is real, that makes Sharks in the Time of Saviors feel like a complete experience, even as we’re left with questions by the story’s end.

Rebecca Paredes

Magic is a tricky thing to work into the fabric of a novel without forcing the reader to lean back in their seat just a little bit, take themselves out of the text for a moment, and ask, “Why?” or, “How?” But Kawai Strong Washburn manages to weave human experience and divine touch together with such a deft hand as to leave the reader only wondering, “What else?” And that is the greatest strength of Sharks in the Time of Saviors.

Magic asserts its importance in the story the moment Noa, middle child of Malia and Augie, is saved from drowning at sea by a shark. From then on, Noa is bestowed extraordinary power. And while magic has the most direct impact on Noa’s story—his abilities making him “more of the gods” than of his parents—the subtler influence of its touch is even-handedly distributed throughout his family.

Through them, magic becomes the emotional core of the narrative. Magic feeds Dean’s ambitions. He feels it as the kings’ energy when he’s on the court, and it leaves him whenever his soul knows it’s doing something it should not. Magic tempers Kaui’s emotions. It comes out of her through hula no matter where she may be, or how low her life has sunk. Magic is Malia expertly playing a song she’s never learned on a lost son’s ukulele. And it is Augie, feeling the heartbeat of the islands through a single kalo leaf draped over his shoulder.

Allene Keshishian

Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a powerful look at the poverty and hope that encases the lives of many residents within the Hawaiian Islands. This work is also a remarkable study concerning a native Hawaiian family with three siblings, all with their own unique talents and personalities. The paramount sibling jealousy and rivalry, particularly against the savior-esque character of Nainoa, are well-crafted and used expertly to bolster the ambitions of Kaui and Dean, so they are not entirely left behind as they all grow up. There are many moments when the siblings come together as they struggle, and they keep in touch regularly even when they go their separate ways. There is even a scene of solidarity when Kaui and Dean fight the movers trying to liquidate every scrap of clothing and worn-out book from Nainoa’s apartment.

Despite offering intriguing first-person perspectives and insight into Hawaiian culture and customs, the narrative suffers from something most conventional salvation stories do: killing the savior/focal protagonist. Nainoa, unsurprisingly, does not make it to the end of this tale, and he does not have as significant an impact as the book leads the reader to believe. Nainoa grows up as a Hawaiian prodigy and supernatural healer, gaining numerous scholarships and opportunities to propel himself forward. While he does affect the lives of the people and animals he comes in direct contact with, he does not somehow save or even lead the Hawaiian Islands into some resurrection or renaissance. He cannot even help or save his family in the end, leading to a rather stale and unfortunate reality that imparts a dreary and somewhat disappointing view: those with talent will fail if they can’t find their path right away.

The novel, in the end, is about failure. The most painful truth is that everyone’s hopes and dreams are shattered for essentially negligent and irresponsible reasons. Both Kaui and Dean throw away their education and opportunities in the United States for no other reason than they wanted to after encountering some unfortunate or inconvenient mishap. Nainoa does the same thing, retreating to Hawaii and leaving behind all of his accomplishments when he cannot save the life of a mother and her child. Although there is some hope with Kaui tending a new farm on their home island and putting her engineering skills to some use, the novel becomes a hollow echo for optimism. The flawed nature of human beings is the real reason tragedy and unhappiness occur, and this work exemplifies that.

S. N. Valadez

When we talk about grief, we’re usually talking about the loss of a loved one. Somebody has died or is dying. Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors is about another kind of grief, one a lot less physical and a lot harder to talk about. In the opening chapter, middle son Noa falls overboard, into the ocean, and is saved by sharks. Shortly after, Noa demonstrates a supernatural ability to heal the sick and gravely wounded, restoring bones and curing cancers. A legend is born. Noa’s siblings, however, get forgotten as more and more people learn of his healing properties. Older brother Dean thrives on the basketball court but isn’t a child sent by the gods. Younger sister Kaui excels in school but lives in the shadow of equally intelligent Noa and star athlete Dean. Each child grieves their lot in life. Noa loses faith in his supernatural abilities to heal, Dean feels inadequate because he is not as book-smart as his siblings, and Kaui loses any chance of her own identity because she’s only known as the shark boy’s sister. The siblings separate. They lose each other. They leave Hawaii. They move to Portland, Spokane, San Diego. And, it’s not until the end—when a death does occur—that they are brought back together.

I read this book originally during the first month of the pandemic. I remember I didn’t like it. I couldn’t focus on it. At the time, I blamed the writing. The voice is too strong, I thought. Chapters switch the point of view between members of the Flores family, each steeped with Hawaiian slang and syntax. I didn’t understand these characters who clung to the belief that their son could be sent by the Gods to heal, I could barely stand to read about a family that lost their livelihood and was now struggling to survive. How could one bad thing after another, after another after, another just keep happening, barely giving these characters a moment to process their pain before hurting them again? I thought: I can’t read this, whatever this book is trying to get at I can’t understand. Now, I think it was because I was not ready to read a book about grief—not when thousands of people were dying, I had lost a better job offer due to the uncertainty of what was going to happen and the job I did have cut my hours, the world as we’d all known it was effectively over. The book about the sharks that I read in April was just a footnote; a weird, surreal memory in the back of my mind. Now, over a year later, I feel I better understand what this book wants to talk about. It’s a book about not knowing how to move on, not having control, not being able to stand under the weight of expectations, about surviving despite all of it. That, sometimes, we don’t get the chance to grieve properly, that sometimes we need to cling to our beliefs to make sense of the uncontrollable, that sometimes it’s all we can do to just make it to the next day.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors is about the tearing apart of the Flores family. The things that they grieve—being the least favored child, not being able to measure up to parental expectations, not being as smart as the rest of the siblings—and how they grieve is what moves the story along. Washburn’s characters move through the motions of pain, letting their grief consume them and oftentimes ruin them. They run away to the mainland to escape their history, Noa tries to save every lost cause he can, Dean fights those who make him feel like he’ll only ever be in second place, Kaui avoids any Hawaiian on the mainlaid she comes across in fear they’ll know of her brother. They run but, more often than not, they live. They choose to keep living. Sharks in the Time of Saviors is an all-engrossing novel. Washburn sucks you into the pain of each of his characters. As readers, we grieve with them. We grieve their heartaches and failures, their feelings of inadequacy, their desire for independent identities and control over their own lives. And, despite all of these things pulling them apart, the family is still tied together. Not through love, not necessarily, but because they are all in varying stages of the same grief and hurt. This means the only people who truly know what they are each going through are each other. It’s this connection that allows them to finally start to move on: they figure out who they are, what they want, and how to heal themselves. And it’s this message—that it’s not enough to simply survive, we must fight to heal ourselves—that makes reading this book so timely and powerful.

Rebecca Calloway

Curated by Brandon Williams


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