The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Perhaps most admirable about Kaui Hart Hemmings’s debut novel The Descendants is that she manages a compelling, serious story set in Hawaii without falling prey to schmaltzy descriptions of clueless tourists, cloudless skies, and smiling brown locals. It’s a rare feat, but Hemmings -- one of the few nationally recognized contemporary fiction writers from Hawaii -- succeeds with ease. The Descendants depicts a Hawaii that grapples with serious social issues -- race, land development, drug abuse -- but more importantly, follows flawed, original characters that never fall into clichés. The swaying palms and white-sand beaches of Hawaii seem so familiar that to portray the islands in any other way -- indeed, in any more dynamic way -- seems blasphemous. But that sanctified Hawaii is for another, lesser narrative.
The Descendants opens with Matt King, the narrator, in a hospital room where Matt’s once exuberant, thrill-seeking wife Joanie lies in a coma after a boating accident. Matt soon learns that his wife had been having an affair; he also learns that Joanie will not survive her coma. As he begins to tell those closest to the family that Joanie will soon die, he also decides to seek out his wife’s lover, the man he suspects she truly loved, and give him a chance to say goodbye.
As Matt reflects on his marriage in the face of his wife’s betrayal and impending death, he also must try to embrace his role as a single father after years of being distant and distracted from his daughters. (In his younger daughter Scottie’s scrapbook, the page dedicated to him shows “an old picture of me in my office, surrounded by the things that define me: a briefcase, a beer.”) He is perplexed by Scottie, who communicates mostly via BlackBerry and sporadic outbursts of embarrassing hyperactivity, and intimidated by his older daughter Alex, a 17-year-old model and recovering drug addict who takes after her mother’s looks and proclivity towards wild behavior. Matt often stops to consider his admittedly dysfunctional family and wonders if he can ever be an effective authority: “I never know when I’ll meet resistance,” he observes. “Once I think I know the pattern with these girls -- fun, intimacy, fight, unpleasantness, smooth again -- they change the order.”
Narrated in a claustrophobic first-person present tense, the reader is forced to experience the sadness, anger, confusion, and myriad other emotions as Matt copes with his wife’s betrayal and his family with the loss of their charismatic and imperfect matriarch. Certain scenes can seem contrived; others, too quickly brushed over. Yet Hemmings manages to make room for some humor in the midst of all this heartache, and the characters, with all their eccentricities, are endearing despite their selfish tendencies. (Witness Matt’s elderly father-in-law assaulting Alex’s boyfriend, saying before the blow, “My father always made me warn the person before I hit them.”)
As hinted at by the somewhat ironic title, The Descendants raises compelling questions about the nature of cultural identity. Matt is a hapa-haole (half-white) descendant of a Hawaiian monarch and the largest shareholder in a family trust that owns the last portion of land in Hawaii owned by Native Hawaiians. The family, facing financial troubles, has decided to sell the land, and it is up to Matt to choose which bidder to sell to. But Matt, a successful lawyer who realizes he is resented for not speaking Pidgin English, is altogether assimilated. He often marvels at the cards he’s been dealt; this lineage to which he feels little more than an ancillary connection, but that gives him power and property for which he didn’t work. Ultimately, having a rich genealogical heritage only further muddles Matt’s distinctly modern failure to come to terms with his own identity.
The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings