Book Review

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 284
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars


The Flores family works hard to combat the poverty they face along with their fellow Hawaiians. The Big Island swarms with tourism and wealth, making it difficult for its residents to eke out a life amid high costs and few job opportunities. For Malia Flores and her husband, a miracle arrives when their youngest son, Nainoa, falls off a boat into shark-infested waters: the sharks swarm, but one of the largest takes Nainoa gently into its jaws and brings him safely back to the boat. The story spreads like wildfire across the island, especially when young Nainoa suddenly begins to show an uncanny ability to heal—a gift Malia attributes to mystical signs from the island preceding his birth.

Noa’s staus brings the family much-needed money, but, it also exacts a toll on the elder children. Dean excels at basketball, but has a penchant for trouble. Middle-child Kaui is fiercely intelligent, but nobody seems to notice. As the children become adults and the family drifts apart, Noa’s gift haunts each of them in different ways. Noa can’t content himself with the person he thinks he’s supposed to be, and his siblings blame him because their lives have been overshadowed by his gifts. When tragedy strikes, threatening to shatter the Flores family for good, the island begins to pull on each of them, leaving them to reconstruct their connection to their homeland and the magic of family bonds.


Sharks in the Time of Saviors is Washburn’s debut novel as well as a love letter to his native homeland. Hawaii is an irrefutable paradise, but sitting in the shadows of its jungle lies a people whose deep ancestral connection to their homeland is challenged by poverty and the relentless influx of Western culture. Washburn constructs this world carefully as both a place of struggle and of deep magic, characterizing Hawaii with a great beating heart. Aside from Noa’s miracle, the land itself weaves through each character with heavy roots, showing us how our homeland shapes us as much as our experiences.

Washburn does more than take us on a journey to his home, however. The characters Noa, Kaui, and Dean pulse with the frustration of trying to find themselves within the confines of Western culture, which has taken so much from them. Each sibling battles against the ancestral land that tethers them while they stake out their own identities. It’s a novel about both growing up and going home.

Beautifully written and sparkling with life, Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a stunning debut and a promising start to the career of a powerful new literary voice.

Guest post courtesy of Ryan Doskocil

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