Hawaii is a strange place. It's a part of the United States and yet it is very distinct from the mainland. Its population coexists uneasily with non-locals and yet it's a tourist destination. It has a rich history and yet is the youngest land mass on the planet. It's a place to get lost or place to be found. The islands also serve as the background to SF-based author Kaui Hart Hemmings' debut collection of short stories: House of Thieves.
Hemmings' characters struggle amidst Hawaiian ways and notions. They surf, they swim, and they have names like Keoni and Mele. But island influences aside, the collection is essentially about relationships. In the first piece "The Minor Wars" a father navigates his daughter's relationship with her comatose mother while in the title story "House of Thieves" a sister deals with her wayward brother. In "Secret Clutch" a sixteen-year old boy is over-attached to his nanny who feels it's time he grew up, and a child-less real estate agent tries teaching her neighbor's rebellious teenaged daughter a lesson in "Location Scouts".
All the main characters seem to come from privileged, mostly white, backgrounds. I wondered why this was. Was the author, who was born and raised in Hawaii herself, simply writing about a world with which she was all too familiar? Did she come from this same background? And if not, then why was every single story about the same class? Whatever the reason, the result is that the class differences and racial tensions between the natives (i.e. those people who have mixed Polynesian and/or Asian blood) and the whites is highlighted. This is most seen in the story "Begin with an Outline" in which a college student who's half white and half native writes about her pot-growing pidgin-speaking, neglectful dad.
While stories like the above have great dialogue, several of the pieces in the collection suffer from stilted dialogue that doesn't seem natural. Certain lines are almost self-conscious as if the author had tried re-working them to sound real. Bits and pieces of "The Minor Wars" and chunks of my least favorite story -- "Island Cowboys" are demonstrations of this awkward lining. On the other hand, much of the dialogue in stories such as "House of Thieves" and "Secret Clutch" is sharp. Hemmings has a good ear for adolescent banter.
House of Thieves is a solid collection. They're not the most moving or striking stories I've ever read, but they are insightful and complex. They tackle difficult issues which are hard to explain and take even more savvy to portray. I've read a few books based in Hawaii and this book wove the plots most seamlessly with the setting. Instead of portraying the island and its inhabitants as hokey or simply lurid, Hemmings depicts the characters and setting as straightforward and nuanced as possible. The people within the pages of House of Thieves are characters rather than caricatures and the author is successful in revealing Hawaii's true face.