Friday, June 19, 2020

Sharks In The Time Of Saviors: Collision of the Old and the New

Hawaiian novels by Hawaiian writers aren't exactly a dime a dozen, so I was super excited to read this debut, Sharks In The Time Of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn. It's a fantastic family saga about Hawaiians caught between the old ways and the new, the eternal tension between tradition and modernity. It's also about the rivalries and jealousies between siblings — all fertile ground for literary fiction, for sure.
So what's the story? When Nainoa is a young boy, he falls over the side of a boat during a family vacation. He nearly drowns, but is miraculously rescued by a shark that cradles him in its jaws and delivers him safely back to the boat. Soon after, Nainoa discovers he has certain "healing" powers. His older brother Dean and younger sister Kaui become second-class citizens in the family as the parents dote upon the shy, reserved Nainoa. 

Kaui and Dean are both preternaturally talented too, but their talents are more "mundane" -- Dean is a superstar basketball player and gets a scholarship to a prestigious program in Spokane, Washington (it's Gonzaga, for anyone not up on college hoops and/or geography. Related side note: One of my only complaints about this novel is that Washburn gets a few things slightly wrong about college basketball, which, as a huge college basketball fan, was hard to abide. But back to the post.). Kaui is a brilliant student and gets a scholarship to study engineering at a university in San Diego. 

Nainoa, meanwhile, after going to Stanford, somehow flames out — he doesn't capitalize on his gifts. Or does he? We see him working as an EMT in Portland, Oregon, and still subtly and sort of secretly healing people in the back of the ambulance while they're transported to the hospital. That's until one really bad day when he's called to an accident, and a pregnant woman is near death, and he can't save her. This sends him into a downward spiral, and he winds up returning to Hawaii to try to get back in touch with his roots, the old ways, and the old gods. 

But then, Nainoa disappears while hiking on the Big Island. Dean and Kaui, deep into their own struggles with the modern world — Dean's been booted from his basketball team, and Kaui is harboring a huge unrequited crush on her female roommate — are summoned home to help find Nainoa.

The rest of the novel is about what happens after, as Dean and Kaui try to put their lives back together, to support each other, and to make begrudging amends with their parents, for whom they still harbor resentment for favoriting Nainoa over them. 

I loved this book -- Washburn is an immensely gifted writer, and beautifully seams a mix of Hawaiian tradition and the difficulties of making ends meet, the pressures of college, and much more. You may recall another terrific Hawaiian writer, Kaui Hart Hemmings, in her novel The Descendants (popularized by the George Clooney movie), dispensing with the notion that Hawaii is an unfettered paradise. This idea comes through in Washburn's novel as well, though in vastly different ways for the different characters — for the children, the modern world is what's difficult, and their Hawaiian home is the respite. The parents, though, are mostly happy, even in poverty...until they're not. And it's fascinating to see how all these characters strive to get back to their own individual notions of peace. This is a really terrific read — and I can't wait to see what Washburn does next! 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Glass Hotel: The Spaces Between

Emily St. John Mandel's novels are nothing if not prescient and timely. Her last novel, Station Eleven, one of my favorite novels of recent memory, is about life after a global pandemic. But more specifically, it's about how art makes us human.  

St. John Mandel's new novel titled The Glass Hotel is just as important for understanding our current moment. This story is about the spaces between — interstitial, liminal spaces — and how these spaces inform our human experiences. Now, as we're in a pandemic-created liminal space between the old normal and the new, this novel can offer important context. 

The story is about a woman named Vincent who works at a luxury hotel on a remote Canadian island. The hotel is owned by a rich guy named Jonathan Alkaitis, who uses the hotel to recruit investors for what we soon learn through jumps back and forth in time, is actually a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. 

Frankly, though, summarizing this plot is difficult, because of the time- and geography-jumps — and really the plot isn't the point. I mean, it's not hard to follow, but other than saying "it's about a Ponzi scheme and a hotel," you'll benefit anyway from knowing less about the details.

So, about those spaces between: Just about every aspect of this novel deals with some sort of liminal space — a hotel, a Ponzi scheme, the shipping industry, and many more. But one of the more fascinating parts of this novel, as it was in Station Eleven, is looking at art and inspiration, and the difference between true creativity and "borrowing" or building on someone else's inspiration. This isn't the main point of this novel this time, but to me, it was the most interesting one. 

It's also fascinating how St. John Mandel ties all these disparate elements over time, geography, and ostensible subject matter (what would international shipping have to do with avant-garde art outside of this novel?) into a really sharp, cohesive whole. As the saying goes, in the hands of a lesser novelist, this could've been a beautiful mess. But it's not. It's short, sweet, smart, and really entertaining. Fans of Station Eleven will no doubt find plenty to like here. I sure did.