Family reunion

<strong>The Descendants</strong>

Kaui Hart Hemmings, <em>Jonathan Cape, 283pp, £12.99</em>

Matt King has problems. He may be Hawaii’s largest landowner, but his wife is in a coma, his younger daughter resembles “a crack baby, or Death”, and his older may or may not be sleeping with a limpid-eyed stoner named Sid. To make matters worse, the comatose wife has been cheating on him with a man who wants to hoover up Matt’s precious land for his own cynical real-estate designs.

When the time comes for Matt to turn off his wife’s life-support machine, he gathers his ramshackle family (plus Sid) and rushes to confront her lover. A not-so-picture-perfect Hawaii shimmers, turquoise and slightly seedy, in the background.

Hemmings deftly treads the line between sweetness and schmaltz, thanks largely to the beguilingly laconic voice of the narrator. There is something pleasingly Douglas Coupland-like in Matt’s mixture of jittery paranoia and raw vulnerability – and how can you fail to warm to a character who punctures a child’s obsession with Spiderman by saying, “All the other superheroes call him a douche bag”? His gradual transformation from bruised egotist to caring father is depicted poignantly, while Hemmings’s mischievous humour propels an otherwise simple tale of a dysfunctional family’s coming-together.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism