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  • Written by Kiana Davenport
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House of Many Gods

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A Novel

Written by Kiana DavenportAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kiana Davenport

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: September 30, 2008
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-345-51545-2
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From Kiana Davenport, the bestselling author of Song of the Exile and Shark Dialogues, comes another mesmerizing novel about her people and her islands. Told in spellbinding and mythic prose, House of Many Gods is a deeply complex and provocative love story set against the background of Hawaii and Russia. Interwoven throughout with the indelible portrait of a native Hawaiian family struggling against poverty, drug wars, and the increasing military occupation of their sacred lands.

Progressing from the 1960s to the turbulent present, the novel begins on the island of O’ahu and centers on Ana, abandoned by her mother as a child. Raised by her extended family on the “lawless” Wai’anae coast, west of Honolulu, Ana, against all odds, becomes a physician. While tending victims of Hurricane ‘Iniki on the neighboring island of Kaua’i, she meets Nikolai, a Russian filmmaker with a violent and tragic past, who can confront reality only through his unique prism of lies. Yet he is dedicated to recording the ecological horrors in his motherland and across the Pacific.

As their lives slowly and inextricably intertwine, Ana and Nikolai’s story becomes an odyssey that spans decades and sweeps the reader from rural Hawaii to the forbidding Arctic wastes of Russia; from the poverty-stricken Wai’anae coast to the glittering harshness of “new Moscow” and the haunting, faded beauty of St. Petersburg. With stunning narrative inventiveness, Davenport has created a timeless epic of loss and remembrance, of the search for family and identity, and, ultimately, of the redemptive power of love.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

PUNAHELE


Favored Child


WAI'ANAE COAST, 1964

Morning, the air astonishingly clear. The sky so unblemished and wide, there is divinity in the light. Sun and heat already strong, the shapes of all things are revealed. Old roosters crowing, shopkeepers yawning, rolling back iron window grilles. The absolute poise of women with blood-leaping grace walking dusty roads to market.

In shanty houses, in rumpled beds, the piping cries of humans waking. A dozing father's muscular, copper-colored arm falls from a bed to the floor. An infant crawls across the floor, picks up the father's hand, and drools. The hand scoops up the child, cupping it like a well-loved toy. It lifts the child up to the day. Here is the still life. The sudden, static poem of being.

Down no-name roads, children stare from windows of abandoned, oxidizing buses, like little clusters of roe. Fresh from sleep, their faces are lovely to behold. Some windows have curtains, there is even a tilting mailbox near the road. A boy appears in a doorway, shaking out a sleeping mat. He rubs his eyes and stares as if in deep remembrance. An old man waters his taro patch, whispering to heart-shaped leaves that it is morning.

Life is not weary of these folks. They have held on to ancient rhythms in this world that was bequeathed to them . . .


This was the wild place, the untutored place, where the Grand* Tutu of the coast, the rugged Waianae Mountains, watched over the generations. Here, thirty miles west of Honolulu, were the rough tribes of Waianae, native clans that spawned outcasts and felons. Yet their towns had names like lullabies--Maili, Nanakuli, Lualualei--until up past Makaha and Makua the coastal road ran out, coming to a blunt point like a shark's snout.

And there was history here, many-layered legends. A reverence for the old ways, the good ways. Each town was set apart by a valley, by plains of weedy, rust-red dirt dotted with patches of taro fields and herds of sharp-ribbed cattle. The soil was coarse and punishing; it was unforgiving and bit back. Still, old tutu men and women planted their taro at Mahealani Hoku, the full moon. And when they harvested the taro, underneath was good. And slogging in the lo'i, the taro mud, was good. Good for arteries and circulation. Good for hoof-thick fingernails.

And they ocean-fished by the dark moon when plankton came, bringing the big fish. And they gave back to the sea what was not needed. And they rested and worshipped according to moon phases. Living by the old Hawaiian moon calendar, honoring their gods, they prayed that theirs would be a good death. That their bones would not lie bleaching in the sun.

Here too, among steep ridges in valley recesses were ancient ruins, sacred heiau, prayer-towers, and sacrificial altars. Here in caves hidden by volcanic rocks, in bags of rotting nets, eyeless skulls watched the land to see what kapu would be broken. And what the gods would do. In ancient days the coast had been a place of refuge for warriors weakened in battles. Here they had hid, tending their wounds, regathering their strength. Here, at night, across the valleys folks still heard those warriors marching back across the land to battle. Some mornings there were giant footsteps.

Seaward, the Wai'anae Coast was untouched and magnificent, its beaches great strands of soft, white powder. Yet only the boldest strangers ventured there. Last holdout of pure-blood Hawaiians, it was the skill of Wai'anae to keep outsiders out. Dark, husky local boys stalked foolhardy tourists at beach parks, vandalizing their rented cars. They ambushed soldiers venturing out from military bases. Sultry girls tossed back their hair, breathing self-esteem, hips swaying insolently as they strode by on crumbling rubber slippers.

Homestead youngsters raised on Welfare, their lives were circumscribed by landlessness, poor education, drugs. Outsiders saw in them the criminal intent, the wish to self-destruct, not looking deeper where hunger for beauty lay. Not hearing the suck and lisp of dreams, despair, then resignation. Yet here was tribal confidence, a sense of deeply rooted blood, of elders standing behind them for now, for good, for always. And the youngsters grew insolent and fearless. Even hardened surfers from Honolulu, out to catch the waves at Yokohama Bay, showed respect. They did not enter the sacred Kaneana Caves. They left the coast before moonrise.

In the town of Nanakuli, off the coastal highway, a house stood halfway up Keola Road, a sprawling Homestead house that vaguely resembled a shipwreck listing to the left. Generations earlier, it had been a house of pride, of people vivid with ambition. Then life, and neglect, had made the house seem very old. But scandals made it new again, embellishing its history.

The town itself was like that, constantly renewed, rewritten by its tragedies. There were shootings. Whirl-kick karate death gangs. Marijuana farmers were hauled off to Halawa Prison, while girls gave birth in high-school johns. But there was Nanakuli magic, too. Wild-pig hunting with uncles, their boar-hounds singing up jade mountains. And torch-fishing nights--elders chanting, bronzed muscles flashing, strained by dripping haunches of full nets. In tin-roofed Quonset huts, and ancient wooden shacks, women sang at rusty stoves, their shadows epic on the walls.


He leaned from his window, looking out at a bloodred valley, the color so beloved and worshipped by the ancients. A silent man, an empty room, only the white rectangle of a bed. He was Noah, and he had come home from combat in Korea without the will to speak. He did not, in fact, remember that war. When folks mentioned it, he shrugged, sure that they were making it up. This was his life now, leaning from his window, the windowsill grown shiny from the years of his forearms.

Having dismissed the past, he was acutely aware of the present, watching the comings and goings of his family, the neighbors, the progression of their small town, Nanakuli, slung like a hammock between mountain and sea. Knowing he watched them, folks behaved a little better. Sometimes while he dozed, children tiptoed close and left things on his windowsill. A mango, a green apple. He woke and leaned down, watching how the apple focused the glow of afternoon.

Since his niece had departed, he did not really sleep. He listened for the cries of little Ana, her abandoned child. He had watched the mother go, driving off with her arm waving out the window of Nanakuli's only taxi. A graceful arm, a careless arm, looking severed from the elbow. She never looked back. Her face was already looking toward the sea, already going makai and makai and makai, out into the world where life, real life, awaited her.

She was leaving behind intractable red dust, valleys that seized up and swallowed livestock, forests of mean kiawe trees whose barbed-wire thorns could skin a human clean. She was leaving, she said, a place of hopelessness, a coast of broken, thrown-away lives.

Noah heard a voice call softly in the dusk, like someone calling in a dream. "Mama . . . Mama . . ."
The child she left behind. Sometimes in the shock of early morning, he heard her chattering to herself. He rose, looked out the window where she was leashed by a harness to a wire clothesline. For hours she played alone in the gritty yard, building a little house with scraps of linoleum, then tidying each cranny.

In the heat of her chores, the child ran up and down the clothesline so it seemed to hum and sing as if she were a note running up and down a scale. After several hours, her hands grimy, her face bearded with dirt, she would grow lonely and would scream, which started the boar-hounds barking. She would scream until someone ran from the house and picked her up.

One day she screamed and no one came. Her screams grew so piercing, a young goat tethered to a tree fainted out of terror. Finally, Noah left his room, walked outside, removed the harness from the child, and pumped it with his shotgun, watching it leap and dance around the yard. Then he took Ana in his arms, humming while she slept. After that folks paid more attention, holding her more often. She grew up feeling loved, but quiet, a pensive child who sat alone like an old woman tired of talking.


There were so many elders in the house, for years she could not keep them straight. Fight-full uncles and great-uncles smelling of tobacco and gun bluing. Big-breasted aunties and great-aunties whose hands reeked of Fels Naphtha. At dusk they gathered on the løanai in competitive fugues of storytelling, and often they talked about her mother. Ana sat in the shadows and listened and, sensing her nearby, they fell silent, or sent her off to her cousins.

For years, she thought that sleeping alone was what people did when they were contagious, for she and her cousins grew up sharing beds; sleeping head to toe--husky boys with bronzed shoulders, and girls with names like Rosie, Ginger, Jade, one girl named Seaweed. Girls whose mothers were all headstrong beauties, famous up and down the Wai'anae coast--Emma, Nani, Ava, Mapuana, and for a while there had been Ana's mother, Anahola.

Along with its tempestuous women, the big house was famous for its damaged men. Ana's great-grandfather had come home from World War I with his nose shot off. Doctors had built him a metal nose which he removed each night before he slept. Folks said that's why his wife had gone insane, lying under his empty face. Great-uncle Ben, his son, came home from World War II without an arm. Ben's younger brother, Noah, returned from Korea silent as a grub.

Their cousin, Tito, a champion swimmer, had been a diver for the U. S. Navy. Deep saturation dives, day after day, year after year, until nitrogen bubbles trapped in his bone marrow turned his bones to rotting crochet. Now wheelchair-bound, he had become a poker master. There were other families, other vets. And sometimes they all came together, remembering war with fierce lyrics and metaphoric dazzle, as if peacetime were the nightmare.

Once a year on Veterans Day, folks came from up and down the coast, bringing baskets of food. They sat watching the veteran sons, and sons of sons, like people at a zoo. The damaged men would drink too much, strip off their clothes, and rave and dance with savage grace, while light hung in the space of a missing limb. Their mutilations glowed. Then they would wrestle their boar-hounds to the ground, play pitch and catch with great-grandpa's bronzed nose till everyone went home.


Of all her cousins in that house, Rosie, five years older, grew to be Ana's favorite. Smart and feisty with sightly darker skin, the girl gave Ana a feeling of security, a deep sense of okayness. Rosie's mother was Ava, and she was the one Ana kept her eye on. The woman had grown up wanting to be an Olympic swimmer, but then she turned beautiful and the dance halls found her. Folks said she looked like Lena Horne. Slow-hipped, honey-colored, each night Ava and her sisters dressed for the Filipino dance halls, rice-powdering their cheeks and arms to make them pale, puckering and rouging their perfect lips.

Sometimes an aunty mentioned Ana's mother, Anahola, how she had loved dressing up and going to the dance halls. How she had stood alone, measuring the men who never measured up. She hardly remembered the woman's face, but often in sleep Ana climbed behind her mother's eyes. She slipped into her skin. She glided with handsome mix-bloods at the dance halls, legs wrapped around thighs that ruddered her round the floor.

One night Ava turned to her, grinning in a twisted way. "Poor little bastard. Your mama didn't want you."

One-armed Ben took her aside. "You got one loko 'ino mouth. Every time you open it, you swallow yo' damn brain. Nevah use dat word again."

Remembering what Ava had said, on her seventh birthday Ana walked into the kitchen full of elders. "Am I still a bastard?"

They cried out and scooped her in their arms. Great-aunty Pua took her on her lap while she mixed poi in a tub of pounded taro.

"Listen, child, anybody call you that again, you tell them pa'a ke waha! Keep the mouth shut. You our precious punahele. You going to be somebody, going make this family proud."

"If I'm so much, how come my mama left?"

Pua looked up at her sisters. "Your mama's on a voyage. One day when she's pau, then she come home."

Ana watched Pua add water to the tub, watched her squeeze the pounded taro, watched the poi ooze through her aunty's thick brown fingers. She listened as Pua instructed, telling her the secret to two-finger poi--not too thin, not too thick--knowing how much water, how much to squeeze.
"You squeeze too much, poi comes watery and runs away."

While she talked, the poi made sucking sounds, swallowing her hands and wrists. "Your mama's a little bit like poi, not always easy to hold on to. Have to let her go her way."


There were nights when all the aunties brought their men home, and the house bulged and rocked with human drama. In the mornings while they slept, Ana and her cousins slicked mulberry juice on their lips, turning them a ghoulish blue. They scraped green mold from the walls and smeared it on their eyelids, then pinned plumeria in their hair and slow-danced in couples like the grown-ups.

Rosie's father came, a handsome Filipino. He closed the door to Ava's room. Their singing bedsprings, call and response of human moans. Then, the sound of him slapping her, a series of screams, Ben aiming his pig-hunting rifle, the drummer running down the road. Ava stood in the doorway flicking ashes, throwing off perfumes.

One day for no reason, she hit Rosie so hard, the girl flipped sideways, landing on her head. Her eyes rolled back, showing white, a trick that took Ana's breath. That night it was quiet, Ana was careful where she looked. Then Noah silently appeared, walked up to the chair Ava sat in, lifted her and the chair over his head, and threw them both across the room. Ava just lay there, her cheekbone's shadow on the floor.

Ben stood over her. "You going end up Kaneohe State Hospital, like Grandma."

Gradually, her face began to change. It grew bloated, blister-tight. She threw Rosie headfirst through a window. She slammed the girl's head with an iron skillet. One day she held Rosie's hand over open flames until Ben pinned her to a wall. Ana found Rosie hiding out behind the goat pen, and they slept wrapped together in a blanket. Through the years they grew so close, they could just look at each other and feel safe.


From the Hardcover edition.
Kiana Davenport|Author Q&A

About Kiana Davenport

Kiana Davenport - House of Many Gods

Photo © Frank Morgan

Kiana Davenport was born and raised in Kalihi, Hawaii. Author of the critically acclaimed novel Shark Dialogues, she has been a Fiction Fellow at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute and the recipient of a Fiction Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Boston and Hawaii.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Kiana Davenport


Ron Fletcher, a Boston Globe correspondent and English teacher at Boston College High School, is working on a novel set in hockey rinks throughout Boston.

Ron Fletcher: House of Many Gods is set in Hawai‘i and Russia, which seem like two disparate cultures. What prompted you to include Russia in this novel?

Kiana Davenport: I knew that one day I was going to write about the U.S. military’s relentless bombing of our sacred M¯akua Valley. And I was further inspired by a man named Rostov Anadyr, a Russian filmmaker I met in Hawai‘i in the 1980s, who was the inspiration for the character Nikolai Volenko. At that time, Rostov was shooting a documentary film about contamination in the Pacific, resulting from decades of nuclear testing and dumping. He hoped to integrate this film with the ecological horrors he had been filming in Russia for years.

RF: In the novel, the character of Nikolai seems almost larger than life: his birth in an ice hut, his boyhood of begging and living in drainpipes, his genius in mathematics, his ambitious and compassionate filmmaking. How closely does he parallel Rostov Anadyr?

KD: Well, the actual man had an amazing life. He was born in a remote village east of the Ural Mountains, where most folks did not know what a zipper was and had never heard a dial tone. His clothes seldom matched, and his shoes had broken, knotted laces. But he was brilliant and funny and generous, and people were drawn to him. In 1987, Rostov returned to Russia to film the aftermath of the Chernobyl meltdown, its harrowing effects on surrounding towns and cities. He was due to return to Hawai‘i to complete his film. We never saw or heard from him again, though I have searched for him in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He may have fallen ill from toxic exposure, or he may have been imprisoned like many political artists are, despite perestroika. He may be dead. I wrote this book in his memory.

RF: In previous interviews you’ve mentioned your cousins who inspired the characters of Rosie and Lopaka, and friends who have glimpsed bits of you in Ana. Though it’s difficult to imagine fiction without the imprint of autobiography, I wonder what sort of relation you see between the two genres in this work.

KD: The main character, Ana, is abandoned by her mother as a child. She grows up a loner and a survivor; she even survives breast cancer. Though I have never had cancer, I felt terribly abandoned as a child when my Hawaiian mother died of cancer at a very early age. You see, in early drafts of the novel, it was the mother, not the daughter, who is diagnosed with cancer. But it was too difficult for me to write: it brought back too many memories of my mother. So I transferred the illness to another character. It’s a writer’s ploy, something to hide behind when things get too personal. It’s also a dilemma, because I don’t think there is such a thing as pure fiction. Every word we write is freighted with our thoughts, our history, our DNA.

RF: Though much of contemporary American fiction often seems stuck in a solipsistic or apolitical mode, your novels embrace whole generations of families struggling to survive, while also addressing urgent topical issues like environmental degradation, poverty, and racism. How do you reconcile the two? Do you feel obligated to address social and political injustices?

KD: No, I don’t. My only obligation is to write novels with as much grace and wit and imagination as possible. I do seem to write about family, caught in the prevailing winds of their particular time. And in that sense I often touch on politics. But what is uppermost in my mind when I begin a novel is fragility, the human condition, and how to discover the heroic in a character. I think every writer prays that he or she is touched with a cosmic ache of specialness–that our books will endure. Writing about politics does not bring that kind of immortality.

RF: How do you reconcile that view with the sections in your novel about the bombing of M¯akua Valley by the U.S. military?

KD: I think there must be some moral code a writer holds to, a time when he or she stands up and says, “Enough.” M¯akua exists. It is a sacred place: a pristine valley of thousands of acres where our ancients came to worship at heiaus, or temples, and where they kept the bones of their ancestors carefully preserved in caves. The waters offshore were immaculate. Whales came to birth their calves; schools of porpoises gathered in the thousands. During World War II the U.S. military leased it from our government for “war maneuvers.” They’ve continued nonstop since then, bombing everything in the valley. It’s now a cratered moonscape, with nothing left alive. The waters offshore are polluted from exploded ordnance. For decades, Hawaiians have marched and legislated against the bombings. Finally, in the late 1990s, the United Nations stepped in. The military was forced to halt while environmental impact studies were conducted. But after 9/11, military “war maneuvers” were drastically increased again–on several of our islands. Our soil and waters are full of toxins and radioactive fallout. Our people are ill with respiratory diseases, cancer, leukemia. Perhaps this novel was my way of saying “Enough.”

RF: Both Ana and Niki endure their share of suffering: illness, deprivation, the death of loved ones. Yet each is defined, in fact, strengthened, by these tragedies. To what extent does suffering shape one’s character? Is it the sine qua non of our being?

KD: There are several answers to that question. During my research in Russia, I interviewed two unforgettable men, Boris Ozhogin in Moscow and Rudolph Otradnov in St. Petersburg. In late-night conversations over vodka, each man talked about his years spent in the gulags, the Russian slave labor camps in the 1950s. Describing that bestial existence, Boris felt he had been stripped of his humanity, that part of him was dead forever. “Who would want to kill a friend for a piece of bread?” he said. “Who can recover from such an act?” Rudolph was the opposite. He was one of those expansive Russians who seem to embody all the drama and chaos of his country. “But one must suffer,” he shouted, pounding his chest. “It is what made me so human! Now I love life. I cherish every moment, every detail!” It’s accepted that suffering is part of our human experience. How it shapes us depends on the individual. It’s that old adage, “That which does not kill you, strengthens you.” I think Niki is such a larger than life character specifically because of how he has suffered. It has given him his humanity.

RF: The spirit of optimism and perseverance embodied by Niki seems to describe the novel’s conclusion as well. It will strike some as a surprising note on which to end, given the novel’s tragic elements. How did you arrive at this hopeful ending?

KD: Originally the book had a very bleak ending. It was rational and logical, I thought. But unlike a lot of modern writers, I am not a cool, detached and rational author. I believe in passion, deep passion, in life and in writing. People who dismiss all real emotion as sentimentality are cowards. So, after about twenty drafts, I realized that this couple, Ana and Nikolai, had suffered enough. Both orphans in a way, they had overcome amazing odds, they had achieved important things. I felt that these two people, whom I loved, had earned their right to be happy. I finally realized that the bleak, logical ending would have been entirely false. There’s a quotation from Dostoyevsky that stayed with me throughout the writing of this novel. He said, “One must love life before loving its meaning, for when love of life disappears, no meaning can console us.” It’s what I wanted to convey at the end of the novel, that this couple, though still struggling to survive, absolutely loves life, that living is indeed “a sacred act.”

RF: Placed alongside your first novel, Shark Dialogues, and your last novel, Song of the Exile, House of Many Gods seems to complete an arc of Hawaiian history, a centuries-long chronicle that some reviewers have described as your “Native Hawaiian trilogy.” Was this done by design, discovery, or a bit of each?

KD: Though I sensed I was coming to the end of something when completing House of Many Gods, it was only in retrospect that I saw what you refer to as the arc of Hawaiian history, beginning with our last monarch and ending near the present. Of course, there are still thousands of stories to tell.

RF: Which one of those thousands will you choose next?

KD: Well, for the first time I am delving into the haole–or Caucasian– side of my heritage. My father, Braxton Bragg Davenport, was a U.S. sailor from Talladega, Alabama. His ancestor was a one-armed cavalier who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War at Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. He fell in love with a part-Asian woman and they ultimately ended up in Hawai‘i.

RF: All paths lead home?

KD: It seems that way. In life, and in fiction, I always come back to my beloved islands.

Praise

Praise

Praise for Kiana Davenport’s Song of the Exile

“Reading this novel is an overwhelming experience. . . . Davenport’s prose is sharp and shining as a sword, yet her sense of poetry and love of nature permeate each line.”
–Isabel Allende

“Deeply moving . . . You can’t read Kiana Davenport without being transformed.”
–Alice Walker

“What separates [Song of the Exile] from its genre . . . is its intensity of feeling, its body of sensuous detail present on every one of its pages, and its dedication to a level of writing very few bestsellers possess.”
–Norman Mailer

“Song of the Exile transports the reader into an often-magical world by the power of its story. Its language is at times a song, and sometimes a cry in the dark. . . . Davenport’s imagination and vision will haunt you for a long time.”
–Chicago Tribune


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Discuss Ms. Davenport’s decision to open her novel with the story of Ana’s motherless childhood on the Wai‘anae Coast? What do the opening pages suggest about a mother’s role in shaping her child’s character? How does Ana’s extended family compensate for her mother’s absence? How do the themes of motherhood and family develop and shift throughout the novel?

2. The island of O‘ahu is introduced in as much detail as any character in the opening chapter. What are your initial impressions of the island: what does it provide, and what does it deny? How are they redefined by the close of the novel? How has the landscape colored and shaped the lives of Ana and her extended family? What is the tone of the narration when characterizing O‘ahu? Does it darken or lighten in subsequent chapters?

3. Discuss Ms. Davenport’s handling of time. When does she stick to straight chronology, and when does she punctuate the novel’s present with past moments and memories? Comment on simultaneity vis-à-vis the lives of Ana and Nikolai, whose paths don’t cross until their adulthood. What sort of events does Ms. Davenport choose to slow down and magnify, which does she compress in her tale of four decades? Does time seem like another trap for her characters, or something capable of being transcended?

4. Contrast the introduction of Nikolai with that of Ana. Does the sort of tragic fairy-tale tone apply to each? What sort of emphasis falls on family and place in Nikolai’s early years? How does the absence of a father compare to Ana’s absent mother? If young Nikolai finds “salvation” in lies, where does young Ana find hers?

5. The subject of spirituality threads itself throughout the novel, from Bible-quoting Aunty Pua and Tommy Two-Gods to disused churches in the former Soviet Union. Monotheism is juxtaposed with polytheism. Discuss the role of religion in these characters’ lives. Is so-called organized religion presented as an adequate avenue for one’s spiritual inclinations? How many meanings do you read in the novel’s title?

6. The novel dramatizes Hawai‘i’s conflicted if not hostile relationship with the U.S. mainland. How is the state-country relationship presented? What myths or preconceptions does the novel debunk–or perpetuate? What issues does it introduce or shed new light on? What is the place of Hawai‘i in the collective character of the United States? What is unique about the islands?

7. Particular emphasis is placed on injustices perpetrated by the U.S. military. How do the decades of reckless weapons testing take on an ironic if not sinister meaning in light of the way Hawai‘i’s veterans of major U.S. wars are depicted?

8. The causes and consequences of environmental degradation are played out on a global scale in this novel. Do you see Ms. Davenport’s handling of the motif turning polemical, or does she manage to keep the subject rooted in the lives of her characters? To what degree does Nikolai’s ambitious film on the environment resemble House of Many Gods? What is the place of politics in the novel, the novel in politics?

9. Varieties of expression appear throughout the novel: spoken language, letters, silence, work, violence, dance, sex, film, and sign language– to name a few. What does Ms. Davenport reveal about how expression shapes identity? What are the limits and possibilities of each medium? How does the novel wrestle with the truly ineffable?

10. Rosie, Ana’s cousin, introduces a key theme early in the novel. “Everybody wants forgiveness,” she tells Ana. “A chance to wipe the slate clean.” How does that idea reverberate throughout the novel? What prevents or makes possible forgiveness in the lives of these characters? Is anything depicted as genuinely unforgivable?

11. Though Russia and Hawai‘i seem like incongruous settings for a novel, Ms. Davenport draws out a number of common denominators between the places. What are they? How do the geography, politics, religions, and collective character of one overlap with the other? How do the similarities and differences of each place frustrate or facilitate Ana and Nikolai’s relationship?

12. The novel is peopled with a vivid, eclectic group of secondary characters who stand on their own as well as enrich our understanding of Ana; chief among them are Rosie and Lopaka. Discuss each cousin’s relationship with Ana. What is consistent throughout their years together? What changes? To what extent is Ana’s understanding of herself indebted to each cousin?

13. Death and illness cast a long shadow over the novel, yet in the end it seems that light trumps dark, life trumps death. Do you agree? How does Ms. Davenport dramatize the contest before presenting her victor?

14. Ms. Davenport mentioned that twenty-plus drafts of the novel’s conclusion preceded the one you just read. “I realized that this couple, Ana and Nikolai, had suffered enough,” she said in an interview. “Both orphans in a way, they had overcome amazing odds, they had achieved important things. I felt that these two people, whom I loved, had earned their right to be happy. I finally realized that the bleak, logical ending would have been entirely false.” Do you agree?

15. After completing her previous novel, Song of the Exile, Ms. Davenport mentioned that a quotation from novelist John Gardner expressed her goal as a novelist: “To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.” Said Ms. Davenport, “That’s the level of writing I want to achieve, one book at a time.” How does House of Many Gods meet–or fall short–of this ideal?


  • House of Many Gods by Kiana Davenport
  • June 26, 2007
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Ballantine Books
  • $16.00
  • 9780345481511

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