“Sailors, Lepers, Opium, Spies – with such a family history, how could we be anyt’ing but sluts?”
Synopsis: Telling the history of Hawai’i throughout generations, this is a sprawling epic saga of one family. Four cousins return each summer to their grandmother’s house in Kona, and each cousin has her own story.
Review: Wow. Shark Dialogues is a spellbinding piece of literature. I would classify this as a must-read for anyone who has any interest in visiting Hawai’i, or anyone interested in long, epic sagas. I love long, sprawling stories that don’t rush to the end, so this book, this work of art, was something I truly enjoyed.
Shark Dialogues tells the story of four female cousins, who return to their grandmother’s coffee plantation each summer while growing up. It is also the story of Pono, their grandmother, who is quite simply one of the most fascinating female characters I’ve ever read. She is fiercely strong and fiercely loyal to her family.
Let’s start with the cousins. There is Ming, who is dying of lupus, Vanya, a revolutionary fighting for Hawai’i’s sovereignty, Rachel, who is married to a Yakuza, and Jess, a veterinarian who lives in NYC. The book is told from multiple points of view, and each cousin gets her turn in the spotlight, and each cousin has her own voice and personality, which makes it easy to tell who is who. But one of the things I had trouble with was tracking whose daughter was whose, ie, which of Pono’s daughters were each cousins mother. Pono has four daughters, and their stories are told as well, but the focus here is on Pono’s story and the granddaughter’s stories. And what stories they are! Pono’s story is one of heartbreak and love, and it is quite simply beautiful. I won’t spoil it here; because the way it is told in the book is how you should hear it.
So with the four cousins, I don’t know that I had a favorite or a least favorite. Each one was unique and had their positive and negative personality traits, and they are all truly overshadowed by the big personality of Pono. There are some very graphic sexual scenes/descriptions in this book that I could have done without, and they are literally throughout the entire book, so it’s not like you can skip one section and be done with it.
There are many characters in this book, with a wide span of years and history covered. It covers from 1834 and the whaling industry and its’ rise and fall, and you get information about Queen Lili’uokalani and her overthrow in January 1893, information about Moloka’i and leprosy, and through to 1993 and beyond. I was amazed at some of the information I read, and have many things to look up and research. I was actually visiting Maui while I was reading this, and I had no idea of the whaling history to the town of Lahaina. I saw an ad for a whaling museum, and I was really excited to go, but turns out it is closed for refurbishment. A big plot line in this book is the sovereignty of Hawai’i, and several characters actions toward achieving this goal. We actually did see some signs on a few of the beaches pertaining to this movement, and heard some stuff on the local radio stations as we were driving around.
There are many spots in this book, paragraphs that come at important moments, where the author does not use any punctuation, the words just stream together, and these are very powerful moments and I feel the technique is used effectively. It didn’t bother me, but towards the end I did see one paragraph and then thought “here we go, something important is happening” due to the shift in style. Also, the last parts of the book seemed to drag on a bit for me, but I appreciated the closure for characters.
Bottom Line: A work of art. An absolute must read for anyone interested in Hawai’i, history, and deep sprawling family sagas, with a character so unforgettable, and the beauty of Hawai’i drawing you in.
You might like to read:
- Moloka’i by Alan Brennert – The story of one girl and her battle with leprosy on the island of Moloka’i, this book is wonderful. A fabulous book that you will want to discuss once you read it.
Added to my To Be Read list:
- Other books by Kiana Davenport. I really enjoyed her writing style, it felt important without being pretentious, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her stuff. The Soul Ajar, The Spy Lover, Song of the Exile, and House of Many Gods all sound good.
- Waimea Summer by John Dominis Holt – mentioned in the back of Shark Dialogues, this book sounds intriguing and has to do with cultural identity.
- Silence by Shusaku Endo – This is also mentioned at the back of the book, and I’ve had this on my shelf for a while. Time to move it towards the top of the stack! I got it awhile ago because I heard they were making a movie of it, and yep – I just checked imdb.com, and it’s set for release in 2016, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Adam Driver (Kylo Ren….uggghhh), and Liam Neeson.
Have you read Shark Dialogues? Have you read any other books by Kiana Davenport? Any other historical sprawling family epics?