A pandemic mystery in the middle of the Pacific Ocean


AN ETERNAL LEI : A Leilani Santiago Hawai‘i Mystery

By Naomi Hirahara (Altadena, Calif.: Prospect Park Books, 2022, 200 pp., $17.99, paperback)

When what at first appears to be a giant jellyfish floating off the coast turns out to be a lady, Dani screams out to her sister Sophie for help. They drag the limp body to the shore and she runs to Waimea Junction for help.

Dani, soaking wet and the top half of her looking like a mermaid, breathed hard as she stood in the doorway of Lee’s Leis and Flowers … “Leilani, there’s a dead woman in the ocean!”

Immediately, Naomi Hirahara transports us into her second Leilani Santiago mystery. While the characters and small island town are familiar, the ambiance has changed. We experience life on Kaua‘i from the inside out, during the pandemic when visitors are close to nil. With her quick wit and easy cadence in writing, Hirahara teases out a rhythm with relatable characters and a situation we identify with.

“Normally I would have easily been able to outrun Dani, but because of the pandemic fifteen around my middle, I huffed and puffed more than usual.”

“What was I thinking, giving this stranger mouth-to-mouth? There was no doubt that I had contracted the virus. I already felt short of breath and my lungs ached.”

“Ironically, with us all trapped in the house, we seemed to have siloed away in our respective corners of our small house.”

With lives on hold during the pandemic, what shifts happen in the island town? Her father who runs Killer Wave Surf & Snorkel has transitioned to making masks with the aloha print fabric. And her mother, who is immunocompromised, is holed up in her room sewing mask after mask. The Santiago’s Shave Ice has closed its operations and offers storage for a local pantry to help people make ends meet. Her sisters struggle with remote learning. The vacant shop soon morphs into an impromptu outdoor Internet café for students needing access to better WiFi.

With each family member dealing with the shifts in their lives and her own business plans in limbo, Leilani has plenty to juggle, yet she can’t shake her close encounter with the floating woman wearing the mokihana lei. Who is she and why is she here? “The mokihana knew secrets that we were only beginning to unravel.”

The distinctive characters and delightful dialogue entertain us, yet as is present in every Hirahara novel, the undercurrent sheds light on underlying social and cultural dynamics. The rift on tourism for economic survival and its impact on the environment of the island and the physical health of the community members deepens. Discovering her sister’s friend camping out at the Salt Pond Beach Park, Leilani intervenes. Her own best friend Cassie fears her husband is keeping things from her. As loose ends continue to unravel, how will Leilani bring healing back to the island?

“An Eternal Lei” begins with a mythical ethereal presence and Hirahara’s crafty story telling keeps the reader entranced.

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