Sharks in the Time of Saviors and Transcendent Imagery
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn is about a Hawaiian boy with special powers and the rest of his family.
I'm interested in how the specific language choices make us understand those powers, creating a thrilling sensation and also resonating with the book's bigger themes.
When we reach the following passage, we already know there is something special about Noa, but we're not sure what. This paragraph is narrated from Noa's first-person POV (the book braids multiple voices together) and is the first moment he uses his gifts.
Then voices came up again, loud and urgent, someone’s keys jingling, while I stepped forward and touched Skyler’s hand, I didn’t know what I was doing, even Dean asked me that, What are you doing, but I didn’t answer because there was too much in me to speak: I felt the prickly growth of the grass in the lawns all around, as if it was my skin, the beat of the night-bird wings as if I was the one flying, the creaking suck of the trees breathing in the firework air as if the leaves were my own lungs, the drum of the hearts of everyone at the party. I touched Skyler’s hand, my fingers traced the splinters of bone and shreds of skin. And in the space between our hands, something pulled, like magnets, and there was a warmth. But Skyler’s dad arrived, pushed me back, and closed the shirt over his son’s hand—it was better already, I swear, the skin closing back, the bones stitching themselves, I saw it was better—and suddenly my head felt fizzy, filled with helium, like after running too fast for too long. I stepped away, I tried to lean against the folding table with the mac salad and musubi, but my hand missed the tabletop, touched only air, I ended up on the ground, on my ass, for the second time that night.
I'm interested in the strangeness of the sensations Noa feels. Look at the words and images: keys jingling, the prickling grass, the heart and wing and drum beats, the creaking suck, firework air, leaves that breathe, the pull of magnets (I imagine those ubiquitous iron filings), the small movements of stitching, the fizziness of a head filled with helium. It's all about particles in motion, a sensation of sudden but small movement, an awakening at a cellular level.
But more interesting, perhaps, is how these sensations move from inside Noa's body to outside of it, how they create a tingling connectivity to the larger world.
When I first read, "I felt the prickly growth of grass," it could just be the literal tickle of grass against Noa's skin. The "growth" could be a term to describe a thing that is growing and he could be standing barefoot on a lawn.
But the sentence stretches further, and it's not just one lawn's grass, but the "lawns all around." It's at that moment that I rethink the meaning of "growth," and it becomes more of an action word than a strange noun. It's not that that he's feeling the grass and the grass is a growth but that he's feeling the growing of the grass.
And the sentence stretches even further to "as if it was my skin." Here's where the connection really starts to happen. He's not feeling the grass on his skin but as his skin. His skin has expanded to include the grass, and what he feels is not just the texture of the individual blades but the literal growth of those blades.
And the sentence is far from done. We then get a connected list of sensations that are physically remote from Noa but that he feels in this moment: "the beat of the night-bird wings as if I was the one flying, the creaking suck of the trees breathing in the firework air as if the leaves were my own lungs, the drum of the hearts of everyone at the party."
These later images in the same sentence are all different ways that Noa is feeling in his body what we otherwise expect him to observe from a distance. For example, he's not seeing or hearing the leaves blow but knowing them inside his own body, as lungs breathing.
Oh, and those night-bird wings! The word "beat" suggests something more internal to the bird than what we might observe from the outside. If, say, Noa felt the "flap" of the wings, we might imagine a wing brushing against him or a breeze created by the flap. "Beat" seems to be the very muscles of the bird pulsing the wings into action. Noa doesn't feel the effects of the bird; he feels what the bird feels.
And then look at how a simple inversion of a related, and perhaps expected idiom, "heartbeat," connects those birds to the hearts of the people at the party. "The drum of the hearts" is a way to say heartbeat. When I think that, my brain flips back to those wings beating and pulls the images closer together. The word "drum" is thematically connected to the word it is substituted for, "beat," solidifying that connection. It also makes me think about the difference between the drum and the beat, to wonder which one is Noa, if in moments like these, he's somehow both.
It's important, I believe, that these images are structured in a way that connects them. Instead of separate sentences, they make one long sentence that builds meaning as it stretches. The sequencing of that sentence is also crucial in the way it brings the reader, breathlessly, from something relatively ordinary to its sublime conclusion.
The strangeness and beauty of these sensations creates a thrill in the reader for those reasons and also because of the way the sentence stretches our expectations. In the moment I first read this, the thrill is enough, and I am not forced to think further about the meaning.
But I do think about it further, because the sensation is powerful enough that I'll remember it whenever something similar happens later in the book—and it does. The imagery of connectedness becomes a powerful motif. It's also directly meaningful in terms of the book's bigger themes and what happens to the characters.
My first inkling of this is when Noa tells his sister "‘We’ doesn’t mean you and me and Mom and Dad. ‘We’ means Hawai‘i. Maybe even more than Hawai‘i."
And then in just a moment there is a reversal of the former transcendence. This moment is told from the perspective of Noa's sister, Kaui.
Part of me believed him. But part of me didn’t. I left his room like a whipped junkyard poi dog. The feet that were moving my body didn’t feel like my own. My hand that touched the knob was not my own. Maybe he would be exactly what Mom and Dad thought, Hawaiian Superman. Fix the islands and protect our family. It didn’t matter. There was no space there for me.
In this moment of discomfort and disbelief, Kaui is disconnected from even her own body.
This is establishing values that matter to the greater book. Connection—to your body, beyond your body, and even to things far away—is good. Disconnect is a sign of a problem—and you can even be disconnected from yourself. In the best moments, a character reaches the sublime through feeling what is far away. In the worst moments, a character can't even feel their own body.
No spoilers, but all of this matters.