“A taut novella could have been chiselled from its 400 pages” – Sharks in the Time of Saviours by Kawai Strong Washburn

I outsourced my review of Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviours, to my favourite Dead Rock Critic, Lester Bangs. He got laid off from his newspaper gig at the St. Peter, Paul, and Mary Angelic Post Gazette and needs a distraction from bad Netflix docs.

Lester’s Reading Diary:

This novel focuses on a poor, working-class family in Hawaii and their three kids: Dean, Nainoa (Noa), and Kaui. Two years difference between the boys, followed by their sister who is three years younger. Little Noa falls overboard from a glass-bottom tourist boat and is rescued by some sharks. His mother dives in and claims that “the shark was holding you gently, do you understand? It was holding you like you were made of glass.” Maybe we’re in for some magical realism about a boy-shark or a connection to some Hawaiian gods called night marchers. Intriguing. I’m digging the Hawaiian idiom in the book. I’m a proud halo.

Narrated in short chapters from the perspectives of the three kids and their mother.

Plot moves ahead four or five years, the two boys are about 13 and 15. Dean is a stud baller, destined to play college hoops on the mainland. His friends are challenging the younger, smaller Noa to a game of bloody knuckles. He gets his ass kicked, prompting his little sister to step in and run interference. Intense sibling rivalry among the three kids who fit neatly (too neatly?) into boxes: Dean = jock, Noa = misunderstood, sensitive oddball, Kaui = smart, brash: “I could get B pluses just by farting.”

We learn about Noa’s power after he completely cures the hand of Dean’s friend who torched it on a firecracker:

“I touched Skyler’s hand, my fingers traced the splinters of bone and shreds of skin. And in the space between our hands, something pulled, like magnets, and there was a warmth. . . a feeling of wanting to correct itself, and I was part of that feeling, made it larger, if only for a minute.”

Novel should pick up momentum now, it’s been kinda slow so far. Where did Noa’s powers come from? How strong? Can he be trusted to use them for good? Do they reflect mythical links to ancient Hawaiian gods?

Soon everybody in the small town knows of Noa’s power, and they expect miracles. His parents treat him like petty cash. Resentment among his siblings is tearing the family apart. Maybe we’re headed for Franzen territory with squabbling siblings who produce fruitful conflict.

Gotta get a beer. I’ll be right back.

Kids eventually land in Spokane, Portland and San Diego. Boring distractions.

Been noticing warning signs in the novel’s storytelling. More than a couple of “here is some foreshadowing” hints and “Attention: symbol straight ahead.” Like in the opening chapter, the mother admits “that’s when it all started with you Noa.” Another chapter starts: “Indian Creek will never be the same for me. . . It was the start of the end, I see that now.” What happened? End of what? Too much teasing.

Washburn can turn a phrase, though. This passage made me nostalgic for cocaine: “I sniffed up the little mound Van had made and my blood rocketed up into my head and exploded into light. Happiness prickled across my everything.”

Novel spends too much time camouflaging details and hinting. Did I mention that already?

I can’t figure out what kind of novel I’m reading. Am I was reading a YA book? Mystery? I didn’t sign up for a thriller.

The plot continues to unravel SLOWLY. A new subplot is sprouting about a sustainable agricultural method (developed by Kaui) that resembles a desperate attempt to connect loose ends to an overarching mythical framework.

Lots of great writing. Loved this description of Noa’s trance-like states: “I felt the prickly growth of the grass in the lawns all around, as if it was my skin, the beat of the night-bird wings as if I was the one flying, the creaking suck of the trees breathing in the firework air as if the leaves were my own lungs.”

The writer creates a character who has a gift and then treats its existence as basically irrelevant, no, not irrelevant, but as secondary, as less than central to the novel or the character. That seems like a misstep. Disappointed by this authorial choice.

Any Cop?: Although I agree with many of LB’s criticisms, I was personally more impressed by significant chunks of powerful writing. Perhaps a taut novella could have been chiselled from its 400 pages.

Chris Oleson

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