This novel by Kawai Strong Washburn is another solid entry in the 2021 Tournament of Books. It’s not one I’d put at the top of my list when Piranesi, Transcendent Kingdom, and The Vanishing Half are in the running, but it’s also a book about which I have no particular complaints.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a family story, with most of the action focused on the three children in the family: oldest son Dean, who becomes a basketball star; middle child and only daughter Kaui, who feels continually overlooked despite her gifts as a scientist; and Nainoa (Noa), who can (maybe?) perform miracles. As you can imagine, it’s Noa’s gifts that get the family spotlight, if not the narrative one. The legend of Noa began when he was a small child who fell from a boat and was rescued by a shark. Eventually, he shows signs of being able to heal people, but the nature of the gift is unclear and unpredictable.
Part of the book’s genius is that it doesn’t really focus on Noa. He’s just one of the three siblings, who, along with their mother, narrate the story of how they grew up, left Hawaii to start their own lives on the mainland, and then, well, went through all the things that come with growing up. In a lot of respects, it’s a typical, well-crafted literary family novel.
The fact that the characters are Hawaiian adds some elements that felt fresh and interesting to me without necessarily feeling like they are there to educate white readers about Hawaiian culture. For instance, Kaui likes to dance the hula, and Washington alludes to its spiritual roots but doesn’t explain it. It’s part of the characters’ lives, and that’s enough to know. There are probably aspects of the spiritualism in the book that went over my head, but that’s ok. I never felt lost or left out. Similarly, the characters, when narrating their chapters, use enough Hawaiian dialect for it to feel of a specific place (that is not mine), but not so much that I couldn’t understand them.
All that said, it did not exactly bowl me over, mostly because of the degree to which it’s a typical literary family novel. A very good one, but not one I’m likely to still be thinking about a few months from now.