Kaui Hart Hemmings, House of Thieves: Stories
(The Penguin Press, 2005)
The nine short stories in Kaui Hart Hemmings’ debut collection are at once intimate and profound. Readers are dropped into upper-crust Hawaii, a world in which people wound each other—sometimes intentionally and sometimes not—at deep psychological levels. While this is not in and of itself unusual, Hemmings’ characters are largely able to recover their equilibrium. Throughout, each person—whether adult, teenager or child—radiates resilience and the ability to adjust to adversity and betrayal.
In “The Minor Wars,” 10-year-old Scottie and her dad languish at the hospital bedside of Joanie, the child’s comatose mother. Day after day, the pair try—separately and together—to imagine their lives without Joanie’s charismatic presence. As Scottie slowly comes to terms with her mother’s deterioration, she is forced to grapple with the difference between emotional and physical pain. As she does this, readers will literally see her transition from carefree kid to burdened adult. It’s heartbreaking stuff laced with wry humor and keenly—observed detail.
“Final Girl” introduces Emma, the single mother of 13-year-old Keoni. After finding a porn magazine in Keoni’s bedroom, Emma is beside herself. Should she confront him or ignore this sign of incipient manhood? More importantly, how can she instill a hatred of misogyny in him so that he morphs into a caring and respectful man? While Emma wrestles with these questions, her love for her son collides with rage at Keoni’s absent dad. In addition, her thoughts catapult her into a head-on crash with repressed feelings about her own racist father. While he provides the finances that allow Emma and Keoni to live in material comfort, the assistance is not without strings. The layers of the story unravel with remarkable depth and exactitude. What’s more, the denouement leaves readers acutely aware of the compromises that can turn us all into conspirators in our own torment and oppression.
Other stories home in on brother-sister incest; a drug-dealing father’s abandonment of his only daughter; a confused teen’s relationship with her father’s mistress; a son’s realization of parental imperfections; and the multiple ways family members demonstrate their antipathy for one another. Although the collection is not overtly political, Hawaii’s race relations are clearly depicted in interactions between native Hawaiians, white colonizers, and those of mixed heritage.
Regardless of race, however, the people in Hemming’s orbit are marred by insecurity, ineptitude, and and self-involvement. At the same time, House of Thieves depicts these characters’ foibles and missteps with tremendous compassion. Beautifully crafted, wonderfully entertaining, and highly evocative, the collection showcases an audacious talent. In a phrase, it’s a great read.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader