Review: Sharks in the Time of Saviors

By Rachel MacFarland

The first and easiest thing to say about Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn is how his narrative style, in varying waves of oceanic strength, made me want to immediately hop a plane and burrow deep into any given pearl in Hawaii’s chain—like a clam, inverted. The irony of this impulse rides on my classification as one of the accursed “haoles”: tourists, usually white, not belonging to the island. I’d like to think I have an above-average awareness of my haole-nature, but regardless, my knowledge of the past is severely lacking, and I turn pink as baked ham in the sun. Still, I’m certain Mr. Washburn (who now lives in Minneapolis) knows by now that his writing conjures powerful island magic, so powerful even the haoles can feel it. 

The novel, Washburn’s first, moves around the islands and then along the west coast of the U.S. mainland, over a number of years, following the Flores family, shifting through the perspectives of both parents, Malia and Augie, their two sons, Dean and Nainoa, and their daughter, Kaui.

Kawai Strong Washburn.

The title of the book—a line so gorgeous I bought the book outright, knowing nothing else—refers to a singular event in the family’s history; at an already-pivotal turning point in their collective lives, the family indulges in a tourist ocean cruise when the children are still children. Nainoa falls overboard, and a shiver of sharks approaches, signaling Spielberg-like terror. But the sharks rescue Nainoa, carrying him safely back to the boat, thus delivering one of the novel’s main themes: the contentious concept of “savior,” encircled in the precarious safety of a shark’s toothy grasp. From that point on, Nainoa is upheld as a rare and wonderous miracle, a gift of island magic, and the ripple effect this has on him, his siblings, and parents is the driving force of the novel. 

Washburn is a wonderful wordsmith and brilliant in his character development; numerous scenes are burned so vividly in my mind that it seems I was personally present for their unfolding. His characters are conflicted and complex, and the plot’s tension—not only between family members, but between each character and the controlling force of magical realism—is perfectly stretched. The whole novel reads with the momentum of a long wave rising to its curling, crashing peak, falling somewhat flat and anti-climatically at the end, but not enough to negate the joy of riding the wave. 

My ocean metaphors are probably haole as hell.

Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse.

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