By turns lyrical and gritty, a moving family story focuses on the aftermath of miracles.
From its opening pages, this debut novel juxtaposes the realities of life for a working-class Hawaiian family and the mysticism of the Native culture that shapes them, with surprising results. Augie and Malia and their children—sons Dean and Nainoa and daughter Kaui—find their lives forever changed when, during a boat tour, little Noa falls overboard and is rescued by sharks, unharmed, as witnessed by a boatload of passengers. It’s an echo of old legends that is reinforced a few years later when the boy heals an accident victim’s injuries (although his mother offers an origin story that suggests he was marked by the old gods from conception). Noa’s gift is a source of both wonder and cold hard cash, not to mention a baffling burden for a kid. In chapters narrated in turn by each member of the family, the siblings grow up, Dean and Kaui always feeling they are in their brother’s shadow, all of them balancing on the edge of poverty. Dean is a talented athlete, Noa and Kaui top students, and Augie and Malia manage to send all three to the mainland for college. But with the family fractured, all of them struggle, and only some find redemption. Washburn’s prose is lush and inventive; a native of Hawai’i, he portrays the islands and their people with insight and love. He skillfully creates distinct voices for each of his narrators: resentful Dean, wisecracking Kaui, happy-go-lucky Augie, and Malia the true believer: “The kingdom of Hawai’i had long been broken—the hot rain forests and breathing green reefs crushed under the haole commerce of beach resorts, skyscrapers—and that was when the land had begun calling. I know this now because of you.” That ”you” is Noa, sweet and bighearted and wrecked by his unasked-for powers. Their stories go in unexpected directions, from hilarious to heartbreaking.
Striking style, memorable characters, and a believably miraculous premise add up to a beautifully crafted first novel.