Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel (Paperback)
The modern-meets-mythology, native-written Hawaiian book you didn’t know you were waiting for, exploring family and the real, working-class Hawaiian culture often ignored by the mainland. Gods, heritage, and a haunting tale of family bonds and expectations.— Heather
March 2020 Indie Next List
“Sharks in the Time of Saviors is one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction I’ve had the pleasure to read. The fact that the book takes place in Hawaii makes it even more special. The author provides the reader with a unique ‘chicken skin’ experience. The book captures contemporary Hawaii’s history over the past 20+ years, including the socioeconomics of race and being Hawaiian, income disparity, housing issues, family issues, and the diaspora that affects so many families in Hawaii who are unable or unwilling to deal with the cost of living. Truly a master work of art.”
— Benjamin "Buddy" Bess, Da Shop, Honalulu, HI
WINNER OF THE 2020 PEN/HEMINGWAY AWARD FOR DEBUT NOVEL.
One of Barack Obama's Favorite Books of 2020. A finalist for the 2020 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. Named one of the Best Books of 2020 by the New York Times (#30), the Guardian, the Boston Globe, Oprah Magazine, Kirkus Reviews, BBC Culture, Good Housekeeping, LitHub, Spectrum Culture, Third Place Books, and Powell's Books.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a groundbreaking debut novel that folds the legends of Hawaiian gods into an engrossing family saga; a story of exile and the pursuit of salvation from Kawai Strong Washburn.
“Old myths clash with new realities, love is in a ride or die with grief, faith rubs hard against magic, and comic flips with tragic so much they meld into something new. All told with daredevil lyricism to burn. A ferocious debut.”
—MARLON JAMES, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf
“So good it hurts and hurts to where it heals. It is revelatory and unputdownable. Washburn is an extraordinarily brilliant new talent.”
—TOMMY ORANGE, author of There There
Named one of the most anticipated novels for 2020 by the Guardian and Paste Magazine. One of Book Riot’s Best Books to Give as Gifts in 2020.
In 1995 Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on a rare family vacation, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls overboard a cruise ship into the Pacific Ocean. When a shiver of sharks appears in the water, everyone fears for the worst. But instead, Noa is gingerly delivered to his mother in the jaws of a shark, marking his story as the stuff of legends.
Nainoa’s family, struggling amidst the collapse of the sugarcane industry, hails his rescue as a sign of favor from ancient Hawaiian gods—a belief that appears validated after he exhibits puzzling new abilities. But as time passes, this supposed divine favor begins to drive the family apart: Nainoa, working now as a paramedic on the streets of Portland, struggles to fathom the full measure of his expanding abilities; further north in Washington, his older brother Dean hurtles into the world of elite college athletics, obsessed with wealth and fame; while in California, risk-obsessed younger sister Kaui navigates an unforgiving academic workload in an attempt to forge her independence from the family’s legacy.
When supernatural events revisit the Flores family in Hawai’i—with tragic consequences—they are all forced to reckon with the bonds of family, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival.
About the Author
Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island of Hawai‘i. His work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, McSweeney’s, and Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, among other outlets. He was a 2015 Tin House Summer Scholar and 2015 Bread Loaf work-study scholar. Today, he lives with his wife and daughters in Minneapolis. Sharks in the Time of Saviors is his first novel.
“With prose that can be breathy and sweaty in one paragraph before gliding softly and tenderly into the next, this passionate writer cries out for us to see Hawaii in its totality: as a place of proud ancestors and gods and spirits, but also of crumbling families and hopelessness and poverty. Of mystery and beauty at every corner.”
—IMBOLO MBUE, The New York Times Book Review
“It’s fitting that Sharks in the Time of Saviors, the radiant debut novel by Kawai Strong Washburn, immediately grips you in its jaws, plunges you into Hawaiian waters, and finally releases you, breathless and changed...The true magic of this tale can be felt in how Washburn alchemizes Hawaiian myth and lore into a modern family epic...There’s something bewitching, too, in Washburn’s prose—the furious, lively spell of it.”
—KAUI HART HEMMINGS, O: The Oprah Magazine
“Mixes hardscrabble Hawaiian reality with flights of wonder and the supernatural in a way that is wholly original.”
—ANDERSON TEPPER, Vanity Fair
"Every once in a while, a debut novel is born into the world singing notes so unexpectedly pitch-perfect and melodic that reading it feels like a marvel. Such is the case with Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors, an epic family saga that nimbly weaves together threads of familial and cultural legend, of human connection and loss, class and capitalism, the meaning of home, all with prose that flows over the reader in a warm, welcome current."
—SARAH NEILSON, Seattle Times
“Reads like hula in modern prose, like the gods have chosen [Washburn] as a vessel to cram all the glory and sadness of these islands into the story of one family...It sounds far out, but much like J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, it’s the ordinariness of the characters’ fears and desires that makes their spiritual connections believable and makes you cheer and weep for them. I tear up as I write this, thinking about so many of the sibling interactions that simultaneously feel like being immersed in a foreign culture, Hawaii, and like watching my own family.”
—JAIMAL YOGIS, San Francisco Chronicle
“Gorgeous, honest prose . . . Washburn does for Hawaiian people what Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao does for the Dominican diaspora.”
—ZORAIDA CÓRDOVA, Tor.com
“Sweeping, effervescent . . . One of the primary delights of this novel is the singular voice that Washburn creates for each of his narrators. He writes with verve and laces their language with wit and Hawaiicisms . . . This novel graces the reader with the spirit of Hawaii, from its fragrant forests to its cultural traditions, and feels, despite its undercurrent of sadness, like a dose of tropical sun.”
—JENNY SHANK, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Part Hawaiian mythology, part modern day reality...I was wholly unprepared for the sheer magic of this debut novel, the fierce loyalty characters have for one another and their reverence for the land. Present are the ancestors and the spirits of the island, but also the harsh realities of a changing economy and a family in crisis. Washburn’s compassion for his characters and for his native Hawaiian landscape make for a compelling story about heritage and the bonds of family.”
—HEATHER JOHN FOGARTY, Los Angeles Times
“Sharks in the Time of Saviors is the novel you never knew you were waiting for. Old myths clash with new realities, love is in a ride or die with grief, faith rubs hard against magic, and comic flips with tragic so much they meld into something new. All told with daredevil lyricism to burn. A ferocious debut.”
—MARLON JAMES, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf
“Sharks in the Time of Saviors bursts with life. It is bright and beautifully noisy. It’s so good it hurts and hurts to where it heals. It is revelatory and unputdownable. Washburn is an extraordinarily brilliant new talent. This family saga is shark tooth sharp. Its pages shoot off crackles and sparks, and you come out of it changed. It is sublime.”
—TOMMY ORANGE, author of There There
“Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a lush, virtuosic novel with breathless scope and lasting depth. Kawai Strong Washburn’s vision is searing, his talent explosive, his heart beating loud and proud on every page.”
—CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS, author of Gold Fame Citrus
“Sharks in the Time of Saviors is the story of a family, a people, and a legend, all wrapped in one. Faith and grief, rage and love, this book pulses with all of it. Kawai Strong Washburn makes his debut with a wealth of talent and a true artist's eye.”
—VICTOR LAVALLE, author of The Changeling
“How do we confront our own deepest mysteries? Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a feverish, booming orchestra of a novel that leaps off the cliff’s edge into a world of delirious strangeness, fury, and hope. Read it for its tour de force storytelling. Read it because it is, quite simply, endlessly, mesmerizing.”
—PAUL YOON, author of Snow Hunters
"Sharks in the Time of Saviours is a brilliant novel and one of the most engaging and memorable books I’ve read this year. Sentences sparkle, the narrative voices remain distinctive and complete, and the deep notes of magic sound under the realism of poverty and loss. I didn’t want it to end."
—SARAH MOSS, author of Ghost Wall
"Sharks in the Time of Saviours is a story of trauma passed down through the generations, of how poverty, grief, and broken dreams weave their way through the lives of one family. Yet it is a story told with joy, even humour, in lyrical, hypnotic prose that will stay with you long after you turn the last page."
—TAHMIMA ANAM, author of A Golden Age
“Kawai Strong Washburn has written one of the finest debut novels I’ve read in years, a story about the resilience of family and resilience of home—a story at once lucid, original and transcendent. There is something of a Denis Johnson quality to Washburn’s writing, the way every sentence dances, moves in unexpected ways. Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a piece of magic.”
—OMAR EL AKKAD, author of American War
“Kawai Strong Washburn has written the great Hawaiian novel. He is a virtuoso who will dizzy and enchant you with sentences that are crazy lyrical but never distract from the raw, comic, devastating, loving familial magic that is the heart of the book. Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a volcanic powerhouse of a debut.”
—BENJAMIN PERCY, author of Red Moon
"Magical realism is interwoven with the legends of Hawai’i in this haunting novel about family and destiny."
—USA Today (25 Most Popular Debuts Since the Start of COVID)
“At the heart of this beautiful novel is the complexity of family love, heartache, grief, and the pressures of brilliance.” —KATHRYN SAVAGE, BOMB
“Washburn’s standout debut provides a vivid portrait of Hawaiian identity, mythology, and diaspora. . . a unique and spirited depiction of the 50th state and its children.”
“Washburn’s first novel is a story of Hawaii and of its strength, founded not merely in sentiment but in tangible, mystical forces rooted in history and in the very soil...Recalling Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, each character in turn narrates portions of the story, an effective technique that offers a 360-degree perspective while keeping the story’s secrets until ready to be revealed...A more than noteworthy first foray into contemporary fiction by Hawaiian native Washburn.”
—LIBRARY JOURNAL (starred review)
“By turns lyrical and gritty, a moving family story focuses on the aftermath of miracles….Striking style, memorable characters, and a believably miraculous premise add up to a beautifully crafted first novel.”
—KIRKUS REVIEWS (starred review)
“Imagine The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen imbued with Hawaiian mysticism, and you might get a sense of this searing sibling saga about a boy gifted with supernatural healing abilities—and the family who lives in his shadow.”
“If readers wanted to pick a single theme encompassing Sharks, family rings true . . . But pigeonholing the book into one central theme does it and the author a disservice. Washburn delves into a Hawaii hidden from the Americanized kitsch of grass skirts, plastic leis and luxury getaways with natives waiting on and entertaining tourists. Instead he reveals how the island’s people are forced from their fields and culture for corporate development, then left to fend for themselves or adapt to Westernization . . . Washburn’s spellbinding, wrenching debut delivers five people trying to find themselves and each other across physical and spiritual impasses, with the essence of Hawaii and ‘osana’ as their guide.”
“Washburn’s supple prose moves between pidgin and its reconfigured grammar, through the indigenous mythology and its clash with contemporary culture and imperialism in the beguiling 50th state.”
—THE NATIONAL BOOK REVIEW
“Washburn’s prose is as magical as his story, and it is his great attention and love for his characters that makes this work rise to its highest levels… The book is sure to be read widely and joins a rich tradition of regionalist literature set in Hawaii. A novel fit to be taught next to Lois Ann Yamanaka’s Behold the Many or R. Zammora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s.”
—ASIAN AMERICAN LITERATURE FANS
“Literature can be a place to explore the nuance and fluidity of Washburn’s point of view, with craft that pushes against predetermined categories . . . ‘So, even though I am not native Hawaiian, I recognize that the islands are still ultimately a place of those people,’ he says. ‘And that, having grown up there, I feel more a product of the islands than I do any one specific ethnic group. I’m writing from that perspective.’”
“The surprises are definitely earned, the language stirs admiration and the pacing is swift. The observations of the natural world are worthy of an Annie Dillard or Rachel Carson.”
“A surreal family drama that functions as its own best argument for the necessity of art.”
—ANNA FITZPATRICK, Hazlitt
“A beautifully written debut novel.”
“Washburn, who was born and raised on the Big Island, offers a Hawai’i that takes in its technicolor-saturated vistas...Equally, he renders the precarities of paradise for Hawaiians through the family’s continued struggle to survive.”
“This radiant, lively novel deconstructs the role of saviors, miracles, and divine intervention—deftly demonstrating that those powers lie within us all. And that they can be channeled so as to transform and purify ourselves as well as the place we call home.”
“His prose is as lush as the islands that he writes about, and he uses it to create an opus that is both deeply specific to Hawaii and full of universal themes — the tensions between magic and reality, expectation and disappointment, and, perhaps most importantly, exile and home.”