Book Review

Sharks In The Time of Saviors [sic] by Kawai Strong Washburn

but sharks are evil, right?

Written September 27th 

I haven’t written or posted anything on here for a couple of weeks, but in contrast to what that usually means (i.e. another of my semi-regular psychiatric collapses), I’ve been having a busy, productive time.

I’m finally back into the rhythm and habit of exercise so my body is starting to look less offensive, which helps with my mood. I’ve also been working hard in my day job to try and secure a contract to run an event with a household name global luxury brand, and also I’ve been putting a lot of time into editing one of my many unpublished manuscripts to submit to a couple of indie presses’ September “open submissions” periods.

For those of you who are interested (or paying a creepy level of attention to the mentioned-as-asides texts I’ve written but have never had read) the one I’ve been working on and submitting is hip-hop-o-crit, the in-depth analysis of my doomed attempt at a rap career. Imo it’s a belter: very funny, very serious, very sad, and i think it’s now ready for me to repeatedly submit until someone picks it up. Or I give up and publish it as a TRUTHER PRESS text in 2024. Note to self: I should really get back on top of the edits for the Poo Anthology, lol, I’ve done nothing towards that since the collapse of its erstwhile publishing partner.

Anyway, so, yes, I’ve been legitimately busy, though maybe this situation will change again soon as the threat of a second lockdown looms looms looms very large. Oh no!

I’m reading through, atm, all the books I bought (or was gifted) on my birthday. This one I purchased from a chic bookstore in a town called Port Hope, just under halfway between Toronto and the pretty, trendy, weekend getaway of Prince Edward County.

My dog, my lover and I spent a couple of nights there, visiting a local vineyard, hiking through a surprisingly dramatic provincial park (called Sandbanks) and then my birthday began with a three hour drive back to the city. We stopped in this small town – home to literally the oldest buildings I have seen since visiting Montreal last November – and my lover went and found coffees while Cubby and I browsed the two small bookstores (yes, we picked the mid morning coffee stop entirely based on where, mid route, I could go book shopping) and I bought many things.

This one, Sharks in the time of Saviors [sic], was the last book I bought in Port Hope. While I was having my stack of other brand-new books scanned by the over-familiar (rural) bookmonger, I saw a brightly coloured volume festooned with an image of a shark, quickly read the blurb – contemporary novel about the indigenous Hawaiian experience – and immediately placed it on the counter.

Something I have to acknowledge here, now, is that I hate sharks.

I’m sure a biologist or an ecologist could suggest (or demonstrate or prove, whatever) that sharks serve some kind of purpose within their own ecosystems, and could then extrapolate why and how said marine ecosystems connect with and help to maintain ecosystems of other, more meaningful (i.e. mammalian, non-aquatic) life, but having seen a lot of sharks up close (I am an annual ticket holder at the aquarium, which I visit every few weeks just to sneer in contempt and disgust at these hideously ugly living things that are barely more sentient than plants) I maintain that they represent a terrifying and brutal historic need, a pre-societal evil and hunger, sans community, sans thought, and as such deserve eradication.

There is no semblance of a soul in a shark’s eye, there is only instinct, not thought. As with basically all reptiles, basically all birds and every last fish, these creatures should not – imo – be suffered to live.

Sorry.

Anyway, my opinions about sharks are not shared with Kawai Strong Washburn, for sharks here – for a bit, that thread (along with many others) withers without denouement- are not characterless, soulless evil, they are instead like mammals, i.e. with some semblance of humanity.

The opening chapter of Washburn’s novel sees a small child, Nainoa, fall from a tourist boat during a marine biology tour off the coast of Hawai’i, a sorta blow-out day-out organised by his parents to temper the sadness of moving from the more rural Honoka’a to the more urban O’ahu (these are different islands). Once off the boat, the other tourists (most of whom are international (or from the mainland USA, which is kinda the same if you consider Hawai’i an illegally occupied sovereign state, which it inarguably is) rather than from the islands) start screaming, because there are sharks in the water. But, rather than eating the small boy, one of the sharks instead picks Nainoa up in his big, many fanged mouth, and swims him back to the boat and safety.

Yes, that’s right. Helpful sharks.

The boy’s parents see this as a sign that Nainoa is special, confirming a suspicion they already had because they witnessed a procession of ghostly ancestors the night of his conception.

Nainoa is treated by other people and by his parents as a messianic figure, and he begins learning how to channel the innate power of the islands into an ability to heal people. But he can’t heal all of the people all of the time, so, frustrated, he runs off to Portland, Oregon (no explanation is given as to why this city is chosen, at least not that I noticed) where he becomes a paramedic in a rough part of town, but then when he tries and fails to save a severely injured, heavily pregnant, person and her near-term child, he runs back to Hawai’i, goes on a big moody hike and then falls off a cliff… and that’s it.

Nainoa is dead (which is confirmed on the very last page when he’s seen as a ghost), and even though he’s like the protagonist of the novel, he’s gone halfway through. Because he is, narratively, a sorta Christ figure, a return from the dead seems inevitable. But it doesn’t happen. His siblings, who are peripheral characters up until the point he dies, also left Hawai’i for the American mainland, and the overshadowing they’d grown up with – as siblings of a messiah – suddenly stops, but it’s already too late: the older brother, once a gifted basketball player living in Spokane (wherever that is) on a sports university scholarship, drops out of school, becomes a delivery driver and then, after some emotionally justified (but clearly illegal and clearly in full view of police) behaviour he ends up in prison, where he gets involved with a smuggling syndicate and the novel ends with him seeming to be well on his way to a fulfilling, lucrative, criminal career.

The sister, the youngest of the children, went to a very good university to study engineering but has a sad heartbreak so uses her brother’s death as an excuse to drop out and goes back to Hawai’i and becomes, essentially, a farm labourer, though this means she’s like “closer to the land” again, which is meant to be read as (and I suppose kinda is) a happy ending.

I don’t know why I’ve recounted the entire plot (basically) of this novel, but I didn’t actually think it was that great – the exploration of Hawaiian gods and mythologies etc weren’t very in-depth, though it reminded me of the ways in which Santeria informs the writing of Pedro Juan Gutiérrez.

Similarly to Gutierrez’s work, Washburn doesn’t offer any exposition-type prose about what the gods mean and what they do, but here (in contrast to PJG) the gods and the magic is not a quotidian part of life. In Washburn’s novel, when gods and magic are encountered, when they are discussed, they are seen as extraordinary.

There is a sense of familiarity, but not comfort; of inevitability but not understanding.

The mythologies here are not presented cohesively, but maybe that’s intentional, maybe that’s what indigenous beliefs in Hawai’i are like: they are not as prescriptive and descriptive as Westernised text-based, Abrahamic, mythologies. So maybe that mystery is intentional, isn’t a fault in the story telling, it’s instead a fault in my attempting to read for comprehension rather than awe.

I dunno.

I’m denying the validity of unknowable mystery as narrative technique, which is hypocritical, given my personal interests in TV shows: I love the absence of explanation in shows such as The Leftovers and – currently running and incredible – Lovecraft Country. I am willing to accept unknowability in television and in fact I seek it out, whereas in prose I expect something different.

That’s interesting, and maybe something to explore in depth at another time.

The other problem I had with Washburn’s novel is that it’s set 10 years ago for no apparent reason, but I don’t think I can really justify this as a fault.

What I’m basically saying is that I went into Sharks in the Time of Saviors [sic] hoping to love it, and I didn’t really like it that much at all.

Oh no.

Yeah, not a thrilling novel (for me).

Also, sharks were treated with compassion, which I don’t want to encounter in fiction ever ever ever again.

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