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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 15, 2006

Novel about Wai'anae relevant but heavy on Hawaiian history

By Christine Thomas
Special to The Advertiser

Kiana Davenport's "House of Many Gods" centers on a Hawai'i family racked by wars, and characters with something in common: radiation.

Random House

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There are those who say Hawai'i can't be written about outside the context of war that as an archipelago and a culture, it is tied inextricably to and continues to suffer from conflict. Davenport would seem to subscribe to that conviction insofar as her previous work, including "Shark Dialogues" and "Song of the Exile," and her new novel touch on Hawai'i's historical and cultural battles.

"House of Many Gods" incorporates generations injured from World War I through Vietnam to Hawai'i in the '70s, when Hawaiians actively protested the occupation and use of Makua Valley as a U.S. military testing and training ground. Even today, people in Hawai'i harbor mixed feelings about the state's large military presence, conflicted about the illusion that, as one of the book's more pointed exchanges makes visible, it "makes our Islands safer," and the concern that it instead "makes us potential victims."

The novel centers not on war specifically, but on the Kapakahi family who, "along with its tempestuous women" is built around a "fraternity of broken men." Ana is the engaging main character, "a big girl [with] strong legs, wide, lu'au feet" who "would never be a beauty." Her great-grandfather was injured in World War I, and her great-uncle lost an arm in World War II. Still another great-uncle came back from Korea mentally scarred, and a cousin returned in a wheelchair, while another cousin lost a limb in Vietnam. It seems no Kapakahi has been spared injury of some kind; even Ana is damaged, first by the discovery that her mother, Anahola, abandoned her by choice, not necessity.

The Kapakahis live in Nanakuli on the Wai'anae coast of O'ahu, described well as a "last holdout of pure-blood Hawaiians" whose inhabitants' skill was "to keep outsiders out."

Even the name Kapakahi reinforces this already weighty theme of brokenness; one translation of the word is "lopsided," another "askew."

Ana's story begins in the first chapter, balanced and followed by Anahola's. The inclusion of both perspectives adds depth to the novel; but when the story of a Russian thief who "lived mostly in his head," appears in the fourth chapter, something seems amiss. Though much of the book is inspired by Davenport's own experience (she is from Wai'anae, and now divides her time between Hawai'i and New York), Nikolai appears more a pawn of plot than a rounded character, and indeed pointedly serves the novel's main purpose. The different perceptions and locations offered by the three revolving narratives share the unlikely connection of radiation. Anahola, after moving to San Francisco, falls in love with Max, a physicist who has been exposed to a toxic level of radiation; the inhabitants of the Wai'anae coast, the site of secret weapons testing, develop cancer at an accelerated rate; and Nikolai, too, has been affected by Russia's industrial emissions and makes documentaries about Russia's toxic waste, and later, radiation leaks in Tahiti and Australia.

The same penchant for uncovering hidden histories that was displayed in Davenport's previous novel, "Song of the Exile," is continued in "House of Many Gods" in a much more deliberate way. It appears as if the novel's characters and plot were conceived simply as a means to publicize the effects of weapons testing, particularly that which takes place unbeknownst to citizens, the health repercussions of which remain undisclosed.

There's no doubt this is an important issue for Hawai'i and the world, warranting some acceptance of Davenport's often heavy-handed delivery.

For at times the story is plodding, and the dialogue weak. Inclusion of Hawaiian culture often seems gratuitous and unrealistic, such as when Ana reacts slowly to her cousin's words "because he had spoken slowly, in the old slow tribal rhythms." Moreover, the inclusion of lengthy explanations of Hawaiian history tends to make the book read less like a novel and more like a Hawaiian history course though this is perhaps less so for Mainland audiences.

The most awkward example occurs on Anahola and Max's tour of Kaua'i, where everything from the menehune, a legendary race of little people, to ancient religion and hula, and even the devastation of Hawaiians brought on by disease, is explained. Anyone writing about Hawai'i confronts the need to instruct a bit so that outsiders can understand; but here the book comes too close to pandering to a poorly informed public, thereby threatening to make such a complex culture, the core experiences of which intersect those of all humans, appear one-dimensional.

Still, Davenport's ability to paint a broad landscape of generations is impressive, and there are moments where her powers of observation are arresting, revealing a smooth incorporation of emotion, setting and story. When Max and Anahola are lying in bed late one afternoon, Davenport slows everything down, noting, "high up on rafters, pale cones of wood powder had been left by termites. A breeze lifted the blond dust and it drifted down. As the sun's rays leaned into the room, the dust became a yellow brilliance showering their faces and their bodies. They blinked," and for the reader, in that moment at least, "everything was gold."

Christine Thomas is from O'ahu, where she is working on a novel about modern Hawai'i.