Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

Bone SparrowA review by Nalini Haynes

Subhi is Australian: he was born in a refugee camp in Australia and he’s spent his entire life living in that camp with his mother and sister. His mother has given up hope, spending most days lying on her bed, barely eating or drinking. His sister, Queeny, looks for ways to get the refugees’ stories outside the camp, putting them all in danger.

Jimmie is an Australian girl left to her own devices. Her mum died when she was little and her dad works shifts so he leaves her in her older brother’s care for days at a time. Only her older brother, Jonah, spends his time drinking with his friends away from home instead of looking after Jimmie.

One day Jimmie investigates the refugee camp because she’s heard how great they have it, all the kids getting bikes and better stuff than Australian kids. She sneaks into the camp and befriends Subhi who reads Jimmie’s mum’s stories to Jimmie. Jimmie’s bone sparrow necklace and their parents’ stories reveal a surprising history.

Subhi runs parcels for a black-marketeer who trades ‘extravagances’ like soap, underwear and sanitary pads between inmates.

Camp administration gives refugees one bottle of water per day instead of the required two bottles (tank water is not drinkable). Out-of-date grit-filled slop that Australians wouldn’t feed their dogs is dished up to refugees except when Human Rights workers are allowed in the camp; then refugees get nice food and enough drinking water. Inmates are given 6 squares of toilet paper when they go to the toilet and menstruating women are given sanitary pads one at a time.

The most horrendous aspect of The Bone Sparrow is that all the living conditions Subhi suffers through have been reported in the media; this is real, folks. I can only imagine how much worse it is on Manus and Nauru, where aid workers are severely punished for blowing the whistle and human rights workers are rarely allowed to visit.

One of the Jackets — the refugee camp enforcers — is nice but most of them behave as you’d expect from the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment, abusing prisoners. One day Beaver, one of the Jackets, catches Subhi with a shirt and some laundry power so he beats Subhi, giving him concussion.

Subhi imagines a Night Sea, a sea that rises to encompass his tent or even flood the tent. This night sea is confusing: is it his imagination, a means of coping with imprisonment? Is it mental illness lurking in his mind due to his extended confinement? Or is it a literary interlude using symbolism? I’m not sure. The night sea serves as a break from Subhi’s harsh living conditions, alleviating his distress.

‘Be under no illusion: Malcolm Turnbull wants to destroy Australian literaturePerhaps it hopes in a growing silence that it might prosper’, says Richard Flanagan in the Guardian. The Bone Sparrow breaks that silence, it reminds us of what Save the Children, doctors and human rights workers are no longer allowed to say.

The Bone Sparrow is the new Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but it’s set in the present instead of World War II. We are reminded of the appalling conditions inflicted upon refugees, conditions for which the RSPCA would take action against an animal owner. Unlike Striped Pyjamas, The Bone Sparrow concludes with more hope than tragedy and yet it’s not a ‘happy ever after’ ending because this story holds fairly true to life. The Bone Sparrow will be highly acclaimed and will be on Literature reading lists.

Get in early, read it now. Don’t let the marketing aimed at children fool you: this book is loaded for adults.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9780734417145
Format: paperback, 234 pages
Imprint: Lothian Children’s Books (Hachette)

The Bone Sparrow — a boy sits on the ground as a sparrow flies toward him. Barbed wire crosses the sky over his head.