The Bone Sparrow – Zana Fraillon
28th June 2016, 263 pages, 4/5 stars
Thanks to Booktopia for the review copy!
This story is important. The Bone Sparrow tells the story of Subhi, a ten-year-old refugee in an Australian permanent detention centre. Born in the centre after his mother fled violence in her homeland, Subhi has known no other life.
Life inside the detention centre is vividly created. Seeing it through the eyes of a child makes the setting and the story that much more poignant. Subhi makes the most of things, enjoying his childhood as much as he is able. But there are major issues lurking. Subhi’s Mum has fallen into depression, barely acknowledging her children, staring at the wall day in and day out. Subhi’s older sister, Queeny, is being forced to grow up too quickly. There is tension brewing in the men’s compound.
Subhi has an admirable imagination, dreaming regularly of the Night Sea from his mother’s stories. It brings him gifts, tokens which once belonged to his missing father. (This sounds odd, but it is explained, I promise!) Stories are incredibly important throughout the novel, offering not only an escape, but also a connection to those who have gone before.
Subhi’s are not the only eyes through which we witness the detention centre. Jimmie, a motherless little girl from the other side of the wire, comes across the centre, and Subhi, during her explorations one day. A friendship is struck up, Jimmie asking for Subhi’s help to read a notebook left behind by her mother. The stories within follow Jimmie’s family history, and the tale of a little sparrow carved from bone.
I thought that the story of Jimmie wasn’t followed through with enough depth. I would have liked to see a storyline where Jimmie helped the outside world take an interest in the failings of the detention centre, particularly after a certain climactic scene in which Subhi must try to save Jimmie, who is unwell. Perhaps, after the events of the novel, Jimmie will grow up to become a passionate campaigner. I just wish I had seen more of that in the book.
The climactic scenes of the book are horrifying to read, portraying the brutal decisions human beings – both the inmates and the guards – can make when isolated from the world in awful conditions. The story left me touched, and more passionate and interested in the issue than I ever have been before.
Storytelling and compassion are recurring themes throughout the story. This book has each in abundance. Subhi, who still believes in the power of stories, is the most compassionate character in the story. This book aims to (and indeed with me, it succeeded) induce compassion through storytelling, to inspire action and engagement in its readers.
The refugee crisis in Australia is constantly in the media. It has taken an interesting turn with the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruling that Australia’s detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was illegal. Although it is unlikely to have an impact on Australia’s treatment of refugees in the immediate future, this will hopefully lead to further change within the detention program. This book will, I am sure, contribute to the conversation. Written for children, it will be a fantastic resource in schools to educate children about human rights and detention centres. Thematically similar to Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard and Girl Underground, The Bone Sparrow offers a slightly more serious approach to the issue, while still remaining appropriate for the age group.
This story is absolutely heartbreaking. I have high hopes that it will inspire conversation around an international issue, and highlight that compassion is what is needed most. The Bone Sparrow will be published around the world, and it will surely make an impact wherever it lands.
Sometimes, at night, the dirt outside turns into a beautiful ocean. As red as the sun and as deep as the sky. I lie in my bed, Queeny’s feet pushing up against my cheek, and listen to the waves lapping at the tent.
Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of a distant homeland, life behind the fences is all he has ever known. But as he grows, his imagination gets bigger too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. The Night Sea brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories.
The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl who appears from the other side of the wires, and brings a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s love songs and tragedies.
Subhi and Jimmie might both find a way to freedom, as their tales unfold. But not until each of them has been braver than ever before.
Do you, like me, prefer to learn about the world through literature than press media? Do you think it has any disadvantages?