A moving and poignant exploration of relationships and self-identity, Sharks in the Time of Saviours also asks the biggest questions about life and why we are here.
It takes on a particular resonance when addressing some of these fundamental issues at this confronting time across the world. It looks at the notion of family expectation, the idea that who we are can be defined by others but that the individual has inherent power too.
Family is also used as a metaphor for a phenomenon Washburn sees in America: people projecting dreams and expectations onto one person, believing that life might change “through one individual doing things for us”.
“Maybe all of us are capable of much greater things,” he says.
Each of the children moves to mainland America to work or study, redefining themselves away from family and the world they knew growing up. It’s an inevitable part of maturation but not without difficulty. “Ending up in different places with their own dreams and those dreams may not align with what the family might have had for them. It’s a negotiation between other people’s expectations and your expectations on yourself.”
Having left Hawaii, each experiences a desperate yearning for home. Their connection to where they came from is powerful, mirroring a universal tenet of many Indigenous cultures. At a certain point in the book that pull translates to a literal calling, at least for several characters.
“That was a combination of a few things, trying to figure out a way to ascribe a physicality to a sense of longing, heritage, the tug of a place you’ve grown up,” Washburn says. “It transcends everywhere else you live since. As much as people may not love their home town, it influences where you come to after. Especially if you come from a culture that’s different to the one you’re living in.”
When he left Hawaii to study at university in Portland, Oregon, the author danced hula. “There was this feeling I would get from it when I was doing it, particularly kahiko, which is the ancient form.”
He says it’s almost impossible to describe the way he felt, “connected to everyone that had ever come before me that had been a part of the islands and part of the oral tradition that comes with hula”.
“It sounds ridiculous and a little bit pretentious so I was trying [to] figure out a way to describe that, and also dislocation and being part of a diaspora.”
Hawaiian folklore comes alive throughout the book, which Washburn says “was a fluid and natural weaving together of multiple mythologies and superstitions and historical legacies more generally”. Some had been part of his childhood, others studied at school; some he had to research to make sure they were correct.
“That was one of the things that kept me writing, when I felt it was all going badly, I had these moments that felt like serendipity, like I’m touching this third rail that I didn’t know was there that’s linking me to the islands.”
His next book is also set in his homeland but in vastly different time periods: ancient Hawaii and the future. The two main characters are women who share a soul. It grapples with climate change, reincarnation, and “speaks to some of the past and how the past informs the future”. Given Washburn’s stellar debut, there’s no doubt it’s one to look out for.
Sharks in the Time of Saviours is published by Hamish Hamilton at $32.99.
Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald