Review: The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
By Lorna Collins
The Bone Sparrow tells the story of 9-year-old Subhi, whose family have fled Burma (Myanmar) as a result of the persecution of the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya. Subhi, however, knows nothing of his homeland, since he was born in the Australian detention centre in which the story is set.
Subhi’s life consists of permanent hunger, constant threats from other detainees as well as from the ‘Jackets’ who run the centre, interspersed with involvement in smuggling packages for older members of his ‘family group’. His only escape is the magical ‘Night Sea’ of his mother’s stories which he believes brings him gifts. We later discover these ‘gifts’ are left by Queeny, his seemingly heartless sister as mementos of their father, knowing (as Subhi does not) that they will never see him again.
Jimmie, a girl who lives outside the centre, manages to get in through a hole in the fence. Her mother had died 3 years previously and we gradually learn that she has been pretty well ignored by her father since then, resulting in her skipping school and being unable to read. She carries with her a book of stories written by her mother which she longs to read. Subhi is able to read and longs to hear fresh stories, since his mother, previously an avid story teller, seems to have given up altogether. The two children quickly form a bond. Jimmie also able to bring with her a thermos of hot chocolate which is an unimaginable delight to Subhi.
There is a growing theme of invisibility as the story progresses. Subhi is part of a group invisible to the rest of society, consisting of refugees and asylum seekers. It is clear that Jimmie, too, has become invisible, in her case to her father, highlighted by her inability to read. Although there is some contrast between the things Jimmie takes for granted and the absolute deprivation in which Subhi lives, each of them has dropped out of sight of those who should be caring for them. Each has tried to imagine life on the other side of the fence — Jimmie having to decide between conflicting stories she has heard about the detention centre, and Subhi only being able to dream of what life might be like outside the fences which have always surrounded him.
Both children have ‘someone’ to talk to — Jimmie has her pet rat, Raticus, which is mirrored by Subhie’s ‘pet’ — a rubber duck known as the Shakespeare duck with whom he has frequent imaginary conversations providing some humour in an otherwise quite grim story.
Occasionally the book drifts into improbability, particularly given the ease with which Jimmie seems to be able to come and go from the camp, but as a whole, this was an enjoyable read, which did not flinch from exposing the harsh existence of children born in refugee detention centres. The book leaves the reader feeling somewhat hopeful that things may improve for Subhi. Although the book was obviously written to draw attention to the plight of refugees, it never feels like an ‘issue’ book, although whether or not it would have had a place on the Carnegie short list were it not for its focus on the plight of refugees and its endorsement from Amnesty International might be debatable. It was refreshing to read a refugee story in which the refugees were not from ‘expected’ countries and, as I previously had little knowledge of Burma as a country from which people might seek refuge, it has gone some way to achieve its purpose.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. We are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group is coordinated by NCRCL MA students Judy Digby and Nicki Oakes-Monger.