"Sharks in the Time of Saviors," Reviewed by Catherine Cook
In his debut novel Sharks in the Time of Saviors, Kawai Strong Washburn combines modern reality with the mystical majesty of Hawaii’s ancestral and spiritual islander history. He awakens Hawaii’s past by setting his characters amidst a backdrop of Hawaiian mythology, as the main protagonists’ connection to Hawaiian gods begins to clash with their desire to live a "normal," modern life. While the sun may always seem to be shining in Hawaii, Washburn entangles his characters in a desperate, riveting exploration of identity, whether it be individual, familial, or cultural.
A current resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Washburn was raised on the Hāmākua coast of the Big Island in Hawai'i. He is an avid reader, explorer, soccer-enthusiast, and ocean-lover. He also has a side job as a full-time software engineer. Sharks in the Time of Saviors was awarded the Pen/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel in 2020. In addition to also being named one of the Best Books of 2020 by the New York Times, the Guardian, O, the Oprah Magazine, and the Boston Globe, Washburn’s novel made it on Barack Obama’s list of Favorite Books of 2020.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a vibrant and stimulating debut. From the very first pages, Washburn paints a picture of allusions to the mystical traditions of Hawaii. The story begins when Malia, a mother, shares the story of how her son Noa is conceived in the midst of a call for transcendent rebirth in Hawaii. On the night that he is conceived, Malia and her husband experience a parade of the long-dead Hawaiian gods walking up the beach, leaving Malia to believe that because Noa was conceived that night, he is blessed with the task of reawakening the majestic Kingdom of Hawaii that had crumbled over the centuries. Little does she know that Noa might not be the only one affected by this night.
While these first pages marinate in a supernatural aura of Hawaiian traditions, Washburn quickly folds these legends into the struggles of modern reality and family life. As Noa discovers his unique powers, he is without a doubt the apple of his parents’ eye. Unfortunately for Malia and her husband's other two children, Dean and Kaui are left to find their own way towards their individuality. Noa’s fame creates resentment amongst his two siblings, forcing them to look outward to escape from family life and from Hawaii.
Through these conflicts that arise within the family dynamic, Washburn gives each character the ability to speak from their own perspective, by having the chapters rotate through the various protagonists. This cycle of voices creates a beautiful rhythm in the story, allowing the story’s pace to ebb and flow as it mirrors the different characters’ emotions and actions in their own lives. As the chapters switch perspectives, from Malia to Noa to Dean and to Kaui, the struggles become multi-faceted, leading the readers to discover the deep conflicts that each family member has with each other. These conflicts initially separate the family members from one another, but this separation allows Washburn to begin to mend these ties as he reveals the questions about identity that are at the center of his novel. The various narratives ask what it means to live with the past but to also try and live in the present. Through his protagonists’ voices, Washburn asks whether one can really ever escape the past and break from one’s roots.
Washburn’s portrait of Hawaii showcases the beauty of its organic roots, allowing the islanders' traditional beliefs to reign over the touristy image that many now associate with the land. His unity of the old with the new, the past with the present, and the mystical with the modern through his descriptions of Hawaii and the narrative of Noa’s family embraces a hopeful, synthetical perspective on life.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors
Kawai Strong Washburn
Catherine is originally from Washington, DC and recently graduated with a B.A. in English and a minor in Political Science from Villanova University. She will be attending law school in the fall and hopes to continue refining her writing and editing skills by writing for her school’s Law Review. While she does not know what type of law she will ultimately study, she is excited to explore various possibilities. In her free time, Catherine loves to cook, read, and go on long walks with family and friends.