“Shark Girls” is an intriguing novel about two Hawaii-born women, their lives bound together by a shark attack that amputates a child’s leg.

Inspired by an actual shark attack resulting in a boy’s death 52 years ago, author Jaimee Wriston Colbert uses the incident as a jumping-off point in a tale that weaves Hawaiian shark legend into the biographies of her stricken characters.

Colbert puts her novel’s imaginative plot in motion early in the book. Eight-year-old Wilhelmina Beever, youngest of Jaycee Beever’s three children, loses her leg to a shark while towed with her siblings behind a motor-powered sailboat off the Hawaiian coast.

Wilhelmina survives, though she is brain damaged through loss of blood. For years she’s unable (or perhaps unwilling) to speak. When she does, she inspires a following of groupies who are convinced her leg has grown back. Furthermore, her followers believe she has power to heal physical and psychic wounds. They hound her as she tries to flee.

Though Colbert’s fanciful tale begins in Hawaii, the scene shifts to fictitious Rock Harbor, Maine, where Wilhelmina (renamed “Shark Girl”) is rumored to have gone to avoid hysteric fans and the paparazzi.

On the surface, Colbert’s story reads like a Gothic legend full of impossible happenings. But that’s just part of it. On a more subtle level, it’s a three-generation saga of two dysfunctional families with an assortment of ordinary problems.

Parents aren’t truthful to one another, or to their children. Moms and dads have favorites among the kids. Some adults are victims of their times, among them Shark Girl’s mother, Jaycee, a parent in the 1950s.

“She was lonely,” says her daughter, Susan Catherine Beever, “this much I understand now, and too smart, her calculating nineteen fifties mind presumed to be content with analyzing carpet swatches.”

The same daughter describes her father as “Towering, sad eyed, but angry too sometimes and of course we try to adore him, Beevers should adore their father.”

“Shark Girls” has two narrators who alternate in telling the story. One is Wilhelmina’s sister, Susan Catherine, who travels to Maine in search of her sister. The other is Gracie McKneely, a young woman whose face is horribly disfigured when her father — holding her as a baby while grilling meat — accidentally drops her onto the barbecue.

Gracie nurses the hope that Shark Girl Wilhelmina will somehow fix her face.

Despite the book’s bizarre plot and shifts in narration, Colbert is a clear and lucid writer, and reader confusion isn’t likely as one progresses through this long, 329-page book. Still, I think the novel would be better if it were shorter and more focused.

But “Shark Girls” redeems itself with humor and characters so sharply defined they practically step out of the novel. Among them is Berry Waters, a born-again Christian and owner of a ramshackle Maine boarding house. Waters rented a room to Shark Girl, and is not impressed by her alleged mystical power. “Trust me here, Gracie,” she says to the young woman with the damaged face. “If you were the Lord this is the last person you’d pick to go healing your flock.”

Wriston Colbert won the Willa Cather Fiction Prize for an earlier novel, “Climbing the God Tree.” Two short-story collections she wrote have also received critical acclaim.

Colbert grew up in Hawaii, then moved to Maine, where she taught at the Stonecoast Writers Conference, among other places. She is now an associate professor of creative writing at Binghamton University, a state university of New York.

“Shark Girls” is a powerful novel with nicely defined characters and a truly original story line. Its end is a surprising enigma.

 

Lloyd Ferriss is a writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.