The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
Publication: (this edition) January 12th 2017 by Hachette
First published on November 1st 2016
Format: eBook Pages: 240
Perfect for fans of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. This is a beautiful, vivid and deeply moving story about a refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre. This novel reminds us all of the importance of freedom, hope, and the power of a story to speak for anyone who’s ever struggled to find a safe home.
Born in a refugee camp, all Subhi knows of the world is that he’s at least 19 fence diamonds high, the nice Jackets never stay long, and at night he dreams that the sea finds its way to his tent, bringing with it unusual treasures. And one day it brings him Jimmie.
Carrying a notebook that she’s unable to read and wearing a sparrow made out of bone around her neck – both talismans of her family’s past and the mother she’s lost – Jimmie strikes up an unlikely friendship with Subhi beyond the fence.
As he reads aloud the tale of how Jimmie’s family came to be, both children discover the importance of their own stories in writing their futures. – Goodreads.
The Bone Sparrow is a fictional story but the refugee camp conditions described by Zana Fraillon were from real Australian detention centre reports.
The story is told through the eyes of ten-year-old Subhi, who was born in an Australian refugee camp. The camp ‘shelters’ Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, who have escaped from one hell hole only to end up in another. Again, this is not a fictional issue, if you search for Rohingya on Google, you’ll find plenty of horrifying articles about the ordeal faced by Myanmar’s minority. Like Rushanara Ali’s piece on The Guardian, for example.
When I started reading The Bone Sparrow, I felt like the pacing dragged a lot and I didn’t find it grabbing. So, I kept forgetting what the story was about and was more than happy to leave the novel alone and forget about it. But then I forced myself to carry on reading it because a) it was sent to me by the publisher b) because it had a lot of great reviews and c) because I had to admit the description sounded right up my alley, I was just at the part of the novel where things weren’t happening yet. I had to read on, and so I did.
I loved Subhi’s voice, I thought he was a likeable character and Fraillon did a fantastic job of portraying his isolation amongst people who he was a part of, but also not because he hadn’t experienced the horrors they had outside the camp. The use of short, simple sentences and Subhi’s conversations with his Shakespeare-resembling rubber duck kept me aware of the fact that I was reading a child’s narrative.
‘Then that girl hocks up the biggest ball of snot I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen some pretty big balls of snot being hocked around here – and she spits that snot right on the ground. That’s when I know. Guardian angels don’t hock up snot.’
The side characters such as Subhi’s ‘adoptive’ brother Eli and his biological sister Queeny were complex characters despite how young they were. I can’t recall their exact ages, but I think they were just a bit older than Subhi, I know Queeny wasn’t a teenager yet and Eli wasn’t considered an adult by a longshot, he may have been in his early teen years. Eli and Queenie had, of course, seen the Rohingya persecutions. As readers, we see them struggle with their exchanges with Subhi at times because Subhi can’t understand what they mean or feel, the camp is all he has ever known.
I liked Eli and Queeny’s defensiveness, and the way they protected Subhi. The relationship between them and Subhi appeared authentic and that made me attached to them and made me care about what happened to them.
Subhi learnt to read English at camp thanks to Queeny. His love of reading becomes an important part of the story when he comes across Jimmie, a girl from the Outside who needs help reading a book left by her mother. The interactions between sweet Jimmie and curious Subhi were lovely in all their childishness.
‘“Stories don’t work if you stop all the time. Don’t you know about reading?”’
Beyond the moments of loving and caring sibling relationships, sweet childlike wonder and cute jokes between a little girl, a little boy, and sometimes even a rubber duck, there are moments of pain and despair.
I thought I wouldn’t cry because I held it in for so long, and by the time I hit page 267 I thought, if I haven’t cried yet after everything that’s happened, then there’s no way I’m going to tear up now. And then I read the rest of that page and cried my eyes out.
It was so hard to believe that the people being held in the camp were refugees. Innocent people who fled from violent persecution, people who have had their human rights stripped away and trodden on, yet they were the ones being treated like criminals. The camp was lined with fences, the refugees were guarded by Jackets who, for the most part, were disgusting and cruel. Their human rights continue to be violated, they were fed food you wouldn’t even let your dog near, and they endured awful unhygienic conditions. These people were completely cut off from the world, unwanted and forgotten.
‘Remi has these fits and headaches that make him scream so hard it cuts through your thinking. He says all he needs is his medicine. “I thought you would help me.” He says over and over again. I don’t know who he’s talking to though.’
Fraillon’s message was loud and clear, it yelled out from every page. And it was scary, because despite Subhi’s story being fictional, isn’t this the state of the world we live in today? Weren’t people demanding refugees have their ages confirmed via dental tests to prove they’re children? Weren’t people saying they didn’t want refugees in their countries because it would increase crime? Don’t places like Yarl’s Wood exist? In the afterword, Fraillon leaves us with this message:
‘UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has called on all nations to stop treating asylum seekers like criminals. Across Australia, the UK, USA and Europe, asylum seekers and refugees are routinely detained, fingerprinted and, in some places, numbered.’
The Bone Sparrow was a spectacular, damning novel that stripped the entire refugee situation naked and humanised the refugees. I’d highly recommend this novel.