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In 1995 in Kailua-Kona, Hawai'i, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores is saved from drowning by a shiver of sharks. His family, struggling to make ends meet amidst the collapse of the sugar cane industry, hails his rescue as a sign of favour from ancient Hawaiian gods. But as time passes, this hope gives way to economic realities, forcing Nainoa and his siblings to seek salvation across the continental United States, leaving behind home and family. With a profound command of language, Washburn's powerful debut novel examines what it means to be both of a place, and a stranger in it.
Ancient gods and the elemental spirit of an island are interwoven with modern reality in this remarkable debut that begins with a family impoverished by the decline of the sugar cane industry. In the pounding, poetic words of Augie, the father of the household: ”I was once the sugarcane. I was the cane and clacking and the sugar-sweet smoke of the reaping season.” Amidst escalating money struggles, a shiver of sharks save seven-year-old Nainoa from drowning, which the family embrace as a sign from Hawai’i’s ancient gods, especially when Nainoa also seems to have been bestowed with healing powers. Throughout the writing is majestically powerful, from punch-packing phrases that slam you in the gut, to monumental descriptions that rise, crash, roar and swell like Big Island waves, not least when life unravels again after Nainoi – now a young adult - and his siblings leave the island for various parts of the USA. Sister Kaui captures one of the novel’s core themes when, relocated to San Diego, she speaks of being, “A person of here and there, and not belonging in either place.” Meanwhile, in Portland, struggling with his healing gift, and the failings of this gift, Nainoa recalls the shark incident and memories call to him: “Home. Come home.” With its sweeping sense of myth, this multi-voiced family saga is a brilliant, involving exposition of how the places we inhabit also inhabit us at bone-deep level. It rings and rages with the wrath, revival, healing and hope of its characters. Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.