‘The Descendants’ is Kaui Hart Hemmings’s debut novel. Set in Hawaii, it tells the tragic story of the King family.
Matthew King’s life couldn’t be more idyllic: he lives in paradise, has a wonderful family, is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty and one of the state’s largest landowners. A true picture-perfect postcard. Only it isn’t.
The only paradise Matt knows is the paradise of the Queen’s Hospital; his wonderful family consists of a wife in a coma and two out-of-control, attention-seeking daughters; and the land he co-owns will soon get sold to property developers.
This difficult situation is made worse by Matt’s sudden discovery that his loving wife was having an extramarital affair. Deciding to find Joanie’s lover, Matt takes his daughters on a journey none of them will ever forget.
When your debut novel can easily be called a masterpiece, you must be an extraordinarily talented person. This title proves it and leaves no one in doubt that Kaui Hart Hemmings is a writer whose books are worth anyone’s time and attention.
With such a grim subject matter – ideal for pompous melodrama – it would be all too easy to fall into tired clichés or to succumb to an overly solemn tone, leaving readers on the verge of tears every two pages or so. But Kaui Hart Hemmings managed to avoid sentimentality, and instead of making readers cry, she often makes them laugh. Yes, laugh. But how can you laugh when someone is dying? Well, sometimes the most serious points are best made through wit and humour. Sure, you may say the novel is irreverent. I say it simply oozes plausibility.
The fact that the story is so believable is also largely down to the well-crafted main characters. Matt may be a successful lawyer, but he is less than successful as a father. Left in sole charge of his daughters, he needs to quickly learn how to be a parent. His struggles are real, because – contrary to what you usually hear and see – parenting doesn’t always come naturally. Matt doesn’t even pretend to know what to do. He seems just as lost as the two teenagers he has under his care.
And, this needs to be said, 10-year-old Scottie and her older sister Alex are not exactly the parents’ little angel type of kids. They are rebellious, troublesome, unruly, and defiant. But they are also in great need of love and attention. Full of insecurities, they want to feel safe and understood; they want to feel valued.
The portrayal of both Scottie and Alex is exceptional. Kaui Hart Hemmings wonderfully brought out the girls’ personalities. From their behaviours to the idiosyncratic ways of talking, she really captured their characters as well as the change they underwent.
Now, despite ‘The Descendants’ being mainly the story of the King family, the author didn’t fail to incorporate Hawaii into the plot. The Aloha State is not only a setting; it’s a character in its own right. Forget Waikiki and pretty dancers in grass skirts. Welcome paradise that isn’t. Hawaii from Hemmings’s book is like any other place in the world; well, maybe with a little more blue sky and gently swaying palm trees. Crime, social issues, substance abuse… It’s all there. Add to this cultural matters, and you have a book in which Hawaii finally gets to be itself.
It is impossible not to marvel at this novel. It’s an engaging piece of literature, with flowing prose, credible characters, and a candid setting. The multi-layered storyline, packed with twists and turns, well-judged humour, and a plethora of emotions, won’t let you stop reading until you reach the final sentence. I could not recommend it more!