This novel is about a Hawaiian family. Each chapter is in the first person and changes perspective between the three siblings and their mother and father.
The main character, Nainoa, is the middle child, and his is quite the fantastical story. As a young boy Nainoa nearly drowned when he fell overboard from a cruise ship while he and his family were on holidays. Instead of drowning, Nainoa is rescued by a shiver of sharks; one bringing him to safety in its jaws.
News of Nainoa’s rescue spreads across the island like a wildfire. Nainoa’s family once living on the poverty line are inundated with gifts and donations.
Years later the three siblings have moved to the mainland to work and study.
Nainoa is working as a paramedic. Ever since his rescue Nainoa has had the power to heal the sick, the injured, the diseased. At one point he even brings a dead dog back to life. But with this power comes a terrible burden. Nainoa is in turmoil trying to save everybody. He is not only mentally fatigued, but physically as well. Every time Nainoa uses his power it takes a physical toll on his body as well as his mind. Nainoa questions what he is, why he has this power? Then one night he tries to save a fatally injured mother and her unborn child and fails. Then he starts to think of his power as a curse rather than a gift. He returns to the islands. Tired and broken he heads out on a hike and disappears.
Dean is the eldest sibling. Growing up Dean was the basketball star. The kid who is destined for the big time. Scouts coming to see him play. But now grown, he jumps from one archetype to another. The washed-up sports star, the never was, the fallen child. Dean works as a deliveryman keeping his head down, afraid that people will recognize him from his halcyon years on the basketball court. When their mother calls and tells him that Nainoa is missing Dean returns to the islands to join the search.
Kaui is the youngest sister. While Dean was gifted physically, Kaui is the cerebral star. First in all her classes, she wants to become an engineer. Kaui, much like Dean grew up in Naino’s shadow and both herself and Dean would be lying if they said there was no resentment, no jealousy. Both however, have no idea what it is like to walk in Nanoa’s shoes. Kaui is relieved when her mother tells her to stay on the mainland and continue with her studies rather than return and help with the search. Conflicted, she wonders if she is a bad sister. Confused about her sexuality Kaui starts to fall for her girlfriend Van and when she disappears from her life her grades start to slip.
So, the novel is about the three siblings, their relationship with each other and their family.
But the book is also about Hawaii. The gradual disintegration of a culture. The fracturing of language, and the crumbling of custom. The loss of nature, the loss of identity.
“But ships from far ports carried a new god in their bellies, a god who blew a breath of weeping blisters and fevers that torched whole generations, a god whose fingers were shaped like rifles and whose voice sounded like treaties waiting to be broken. And money was the name of that god, and it was the sort of god that preyed on you, made demands and laid its hands on you with such force as to make the Old Testament piss its pants. We were made, eventually, to pray to it, whether we wanted to or not”.
There is a spirituality and power that resides within the island. A power which fights back against the new world. The old ways struggling to return. At times throughout the novel all the family members feel and experience this spiritual power. A residual power that has no central core, residing rather in everything on the island, the trees, the wind, the water.
The author, Kawai Strong Washburn, is a native Hawaiian, and you can feel the passion he has for the island in his writing; almost to the point where the island becomes a character as well.
An enjoyable read. 3.5 Stars.
Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island of Hawai'i. His work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, McSweeney's, and Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, among other outlets. He was a 2015 Tin House Summer Scholar and 2015 Bread Loaf work-study scholar.