Short stories often bloom into novels—take Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and Nora Okja Keller’s “Comfort Woman,” as just two examples birthed from what was intended to be only a brief narrative. Kaui Hart Hemmings’ first novel, “The Descendants,” is likewise an offspring of a shorter tale from her promising 2005 debut collection of short fiction, “House of Thieves.”

During her reading at the Hawai`i Book and Music Festival on May 19th, Hemmings revealed that she wrote “The Descendants” in under a year, after abandoning a more complicated narrative that just wasn’t coming together. It seems to have been a smart decision.

For while retaining the story’s premise of a young family coping with their wife and mother’s coma, Hemmings gracefully expands “The Minor Wars,” into the long form, asserting that she, too, is a novelist who hasn’t mislaid the strengths that previously earned her praise.

Since my Miami Herald review is no longer available online, I’ll include it here.

The Descendants
By Kaui Hart Hemmings
RANDOM HOUSE; 283 pages; $24.95

Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Published in the Miami Herald June 2007

Short stories often bloom into novels, and Kaui Hart Hemmings’ first, “The Descendants,” is likewise an offspring of a shorter tale from her promising 2005 debut collection of short fiction, “House of Thieves.” Retaining the premise of a young family coping with their wife and mother’s coma, Hemmings gracefully expands “The Minor Wars” into the long form, asserting that she, too, is a novelist who hasn’t mislaid the strengths that previously earned her praise.

Set in Kailua, fifteen miles from Honolulu, the story abounds with authentic intimacy and observations that evoke a present-day atmosphere any island resident will recognize. The best moments come when local nuances are built into character description: “I can see the beauty in her face, the way her features seem to build off one another, collaborating,” says Matt King of his oldest daughter, Alex, adding with characteristic sharpness that “[t]omorrow the sun will rise over the Ko`olaus, and the light will smack her in the face.”

But it’s the story that matters, and this one is well paced, uncomplicated but buoyed by characters who are endearing because of, and not despite, their cynical dysfunction. They add dimension to the family’s quest to accept losing Joanie, who even in a coma remains a vital presence and drives much of the action. Through Matt’s recollections, she appears as the life in their low-expectation, 19-year marriage, an exciting but volatile wife and mother who has left behind many unanswered questions. She’s also burnt bridges with Alex who, upon her return from a Big Island boarding school, offers stability while avoiding the rebellious teenager cliché. Alex brings Sid into the fold, her troubled friend-come-boyfriend who is perhaps the novel’s most energetic character, despite his obvious position as foil to reveal further aspects of Matt’s personality. Scottie, the youngest, is the book’s charming broken bird, coping through quirky comments and adult imitations.

Matt, bewilderingly, is positioned as narratorial guide and cultural interpreter, seeming more a mainlander than part-Hawaiian wealthy landowner. He says porch, not lanai; hates to take off his shoes before entering a home, as is customary; and refreshingly but incongruously explains things such as “[t]he tropics make it difficult to mope.” This leads to jarring moments where, as in her debut, Hemmings works too hard to translate Hawaiian terms. If he tends to be flat and disconnected, she justifies it through his historical absence, painting him as more concerned with establishing a legacy than tending his present: “I haven’t been the most available parent. I’ve been in a state of prolonged unconsciousness,” he admits, vowing to stop “trying to prove I’m great and not just a descendant of somebody great.”

Though not exceptionally profound, the resulting marital mysteries and suspicious business deals surrounding the sale of their lands, is enough to create engaging momentum. But by crafting Matt as the largest shareholder in his family’s royal ancestral trust, encompassing an unlikely and staggering 300,000 acres on Kaua`i, Hemmings likens them to the power and presence of one of the state’s largest landowners, an exaggeration that just doesn’t work with the family as designed and detracts from the book’s otherwise effortless successes.
Yet, as the book unfolds, the confidence of the writing soars, and other questionable places where descriptions and dialogue are over the top soon disappear. What arises is an entertaining, often moving and unique portrait of island family life, inevitably entwined with subtle and complex historical politics.

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