The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon. Book Review.
The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon. Book Review.
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.
“Soon Sabhi, the people out there will remember us. Soon they’ll see that living in here isn’t living at all. We just need to show them who we are, that we’re people, and then they’ll remember. This time, they won’t forget.”
Zana Fraillon in The Bone Sparrow
Subhi had lived every one of his nine years inside the fences that separate him from the Outside.
Nine years living under the watchful eye of the Jackets, who called him DAR-1. Number one because he was the first born there.
Nine years of waiting for Ba to arrive, for he had been left behind when Maa and Queeny, Subhi’s older sister, had to flee Burma. The Rohingya people were told they didn’t belong there.
And nine years worth of imagination and stories, creating a world he could only dream of. Subhi was the only one that could hear the Night Sea, when the red dust turned into ocean and washed treasures ashore, treasures that held messages sent by his Ba.
Subhi loved stories. He loved hearing stories of Burma, Rohingya stories passed down the generations. But Maa had stopped telling her stories. She was tired. Queeny didn’t understand why Subhi needed to hear them.
“Everyone else in here has memories to hold on to,” he said. “Everyone else has things to think on to stop them getting squished down to nothing. But I don’t have memories of anywhere else, and all these days just squish into the same. I need their stories. I need them to make my memories.”
Jimmie lived on the outside but needed stories just as much as Subhi. Since her mother died, no one had the time to read with her. All she had were memories of her mother’s voice and her mother’s notebook. Jimmie needed to know what her mother had written, but she hadn’t yet learnt how to read.
Jimmie’s other great love was exploring. The only place she had yet to explore was down the hill near the Centre. The air felt different down there, she could feel the sadness.
One night Jimmie found her way into the Centre and met Subhi. For Jimmie, Subhi was able to read the stories held within the pages of her mother’s notebook. And Subhi too finally found what he had longed for, a taste for freedom, of life in the Outside.
This fast friendship would soon become more important than ever, as lives were at risk and Subhi had to make the hardest decisions of his young life.
Whilst the characters and events in The Bone Sparrow are fictional, as the author explains, the policies that put people like Subhi and his family in detention are real, as are the inhumane conditions in which they are made to live. The Rohingya people are one of the most persecuted people on earth, and it is shameful that they, along with many other refugee groups, are treated worse than criminals by our government.
This is an important and necessary book. It is set in a fictitious location in Australia, but it does represent a not uncommon animosity towards refugees around the world. This book could be set anywhere.
The writing is simple, but this is consistent with the voice of our narrator. We see the world through the eyes of the nine- or ten-year-old Subhi, with the naivety that comes with him not having ever lived anywhere else. Youth does not shield from the harsher realities of his life, however, and Subhi sees everything. The author has not shied away from brutality, hunger strikes or riots, but tells these events in a manner appropriate for younger readers. There are the positive themes of friendship, love and loyalty threaded through the story also.
This is a wonderful story for younger readers, to raise awareness and stimulate discussion on the plight of refugees in Australia and around the world.
Have you read The Bone Sparrow, or would you like to? What books on the refugee crisis and immigration would you recommend? I’d love to hear. Let’s discuss in the comments below!
If you or your young person have enjoyed The Bone Sparrow you may also like A Cardboard Palace by Allayne Webster. This is another middle grade fiction touching on global sociopolitical issues. You can read my review here.
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