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Review: SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS by Kawai Strong Washburn

“When our language,‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, was outlawed, so our gods went, so our prayers went, so ideas went, so the island went.”

My Goodreads review for SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS begins, “this is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read holy ****. CRIMINALLY underrated,” and I stand by this statement. This book is one of the best I’ve ever read, and it is criminally underrated. Its premise, one that draws from Hawaiian mythology and folklore, is irresistible, Washburn’s writing is dazzling, and the story follows some of the most complex and richly developed characters I’ve ever read. I felt much less obligated to write a review for this book than I felt compelled to; I’m just bursting to share all my favorite things about it and all the ways in which it’s remarkable. 

SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS, Washburn’s debut novel, follows a Filipino-Hawaiian family with a Chosen One at its center. Nainoa (Noa) Flores, the Chosen One in question, is the middle child; we learn that on a family vacation in 1995, Noa fell overboard a cruise ship into the middle of the ocean and was rescued by a shark. In the wake of this miracle, Noa begins developing gifts no one can explain, which only confirms his parents’ and community’s suspicions: he has been favored by the ancient Hawaiian gods. He was chosen, he is special. 

However, one of the many ways in which Washburn shatters the traditional trajectory of the Chosen One archetype is by lovingly exploring the toll that such high expectations of greatness could take on the Chosen One, as well as those closest to them. Dean, Noa’s older brother and the Flores family’s eldest child, and Kaui, Noa’s sister and the youngest child, feel as though they are doomed to live in Noa’s shadow. Even when Dean’s basketball stardom leads to a full athletic scholarship to a university on the mainland, and Kaui’s intelligence and ambition lands her in San Diego, studying engineering and excelling in her classes, they are never able to measure up to their brother. 

As the story develops, the three siblings each suffer tremendously. Noa tries to hone and understand his abilities, but being favored by the gods is isolating — he struggles with carrying burdens no one else can see, and this loneliness is compounded by the emotional trauma he suffered because of his gifts in his adolescence. Dean possesses a serious inferiority complex, one which results in a tense and distant relationship with his brother and a penchant for making bad decisions; he becomes obsessed with wealth, fame, and pleasure. Kaui, not unlike Dean, always has something to prove — she revels in risk-taking, whether it be by taking hard drugs or climbing to dangerous heights on mountains and abandoned buildings, and navigates complicated relationships while discovering her sexuality. ( As in… she finds out that she likes listening to Girl in Red.)

They don’t come together again, physically or emotionally, until something terrible happens, forcing them to make their separate journeys back to Hawai’i. 

When I say that Washburn shatters the traditional arc and narrative of the Chosen One, I want to emphasize that this unraveling is precisely what made this story so deeply vulnerable and emotional — it becomes one about failure rather than triumph and resentment where you’d expect unflinching loyalty; confusion replaces what would typically be divine clarity. Washburn allows the experience of being the Chosen One to be imperfect — Noa isn’t a ‘reluctant hero’ resigned to his abilities, he revels in them and the power they give him; he’s far from being a lovable saint but is quite egotistical, with a talent for grating on people’s nerves. 

Washburn gives equal voice and agency to the characters who, in a typical story, only live in the Chosen One’s periphery, playing the role of ever-loyal siblings and a perfect, selfless mother. In SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS, Dean and Kaui are allowed to be jealous and resentful, and the two even bond over their irritation. Malia, their mother, is allowed to make mistakes — she’s allowed to emotionally neglect some of her children, caught up in the frenzy of having a divine child, as well as accidentally harm that divine child with the weight of her expectations of him. She loves them so hard and tries her absolute best, but she sometimes hurts them. 

All of these characters are allowed to mess up. And not in the pretty, respectable, “lost despite how hard they tried” way, but in the “wow, that was really messed up and reflects badly on their character” way. Noa, Dean, Kaui, and Malia are allowed to completely screw up, and that allows them to be some of the most well-written, complex characters I’ve ever encountered. They have so many layers that they’re basically crepe cakes. 

And this complexity extends to their relationship dynamics. From those within families (siblings, parents and their children) to those between friends and lovers, these characters’ relationships are incredibly complicated. 

Dean constantly feels inferior to Noa and is downright hateful toward him as a result. This complex isn’t Noa’s fault — Malia and Augie’s failure to equally distribute their attention among their children is probably the main culprit — but he does unintentionally fuel it. He can be condescending and self-important, constantly speaking down to everyone around him, and often makes Dean feel lesser. This causes Dean to constantly overcompensate, always feeling like bigger is better and therefore he must get as big as possible, no matter the consequences. He once thinks, “[A philosophy professor] said people think force and power is the same thing, but really force is what you use when you don’t got power. I think about me and Noa and I’m like, I been using force my whole life. What does that make me?”

Kaui’s achievements aren’t as flashy as Dean’s or Noa’s, and Malia and Augie (the patriarch of the Flores family) are much less invested in them as a result. In one scene, Malia reminds Kaui about how much she and Augie sacrifice to pay her college tuition, and Kaui mentally responds, “She never said s*** like this to the boys, only to me. Like I was supposed to be guilty of ambition while they were just living their full potential.” 

Both Dean and Kaui are allowed to be exasperated with Noa being the Chosen One — one scene from Kaui’s perspective reads: 

“’You can do whatever you want,’ I said.

‘No I can’t,’ Noa said. ‘You can, but not me.’

Part of me was tired of him this way. When he acted like he was the one suffering, when really all the rest of us were having to deal with what it meant to not be him.” 

But Noa is suffering, and Washburn allows him to be fully honest about it. He is utterly aware that he has experiences and abilities no one understands, and this makes him feel completely alone. He’s often completely overwhelmed, and no one is able to help him because they don’t know how. One scene, taking place after a bad incident at work (Noa worked as a paramedic), reads:

But I didn’t answer, the colors came and went, run run fly rat flee eat sleep sun fly there is my baby where is my husband here is my body wasting away on your gurney, and the [redacted due to spoiler] and everything I’d destroyed, Khadeja, you would never feel any of it the way I would, I am on an island in a dark ocean you will never be able to cross.” 

Washburn makes no judgements as to one party being right and the other being wrong; instead, he gives voice to every party involved, portraying each of their feelings as valid, and does so compassionately. He understands that you can feel many different things at once, be many different things at once. He understands that love can be complicated. 

SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS spends a lot of time exploring notions of regret. Dean, Noa, Kaui, and Malia have seriously failed people in ways they deeply regret, and Washburn allows them to really sit with and navigate their guilt. They don’t immediately redeem themselves — some of their mistakes are pretty irredeemable, actually — or do so gracefully, but are basically directionless emotional wrecks. Their remorse often broke my heart; in one passage, Dean thinks, “Used to be I was a razor, sharp and flashy bright, till I went and dulled myself.” 

Additionally, Washburn makes the ways in which modern Hawai’i is being choked by capitalism a central theme in this book. The Flores family always struggles financially; in fact, these troubles corrupt Augie and Malia’s relationship with Noa and place burdens on him that he’s far too young to bear. Kaui can’t afford plane tickets home. Their entire hometown suffers from the collapse of the sugarcane industry, and many people’s livelihoods depend on their putting up with entitled, disrespectful tourists. However, he also navigates the way in which capitalism is parasitic — characters know that certain ways of making money are morally wrong, but they also know they need money to survive, and the pressure to keep a roof over their heads and pay for bills is simply too strong. No matter what, they can’t escape being cogs in the machine. 

Washburn, who was born and raised on the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast, also lovingly pays homage to Hawaiian culture and history. This book is a work of magical realism, and he makes stories derived from and inspired by Hawaiian folklore, celebrating his heritage and making clear that it’s very much alive. His writing is full of local sayings and traditions, as well as reflections on what it’s like and what it means to be an actual Hawaiian person rather than a caricature of one. And in a rejection of the white gaze, he incorporates Hawaiian Pidgin and slang throughout both the dialogue and characters’ inner narration without any translation — if you know, you know, and if you don’t, you can either try to use context clues or look it up on Google Translate. His prose is dazzling as he does so, filled with stunning sentences like, “We place the lei in the pit and the soil slides back over it like an eyelid closing that will never open again.” After reading this book, I’m going to be reading anything Washburn publishes. I would genuinely read his grocery lists for fun — his writing is that beautiful. 

This was a five-star reading experience, full-stop. A tour de force. If you’ve been trying to come up with books to read during May, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, add this to your list.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

8 Comments

  1. This was a wonderful review and I’m so intrigued by this novel now! I love when books subvert tropes, and an imperfect Chosen One sounds so interesting – plus I adore the fact it also follows characters effected by him being the ‘chosen one’.

    Liked by 1 person

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