A review by Nalini Haynes
Ezra, Miran and Isa are children living in slavery, tending opium plans in a basement in Australia. They’re rarely allowed outside, instead they have to ration their food and collect their water from the sprinkler system.
Eventually there’s a fire, destroying the plants. They’re lucky — the sprinkler system came on in time to help put out the fire before power failure cut off all systems. They’re locked inside with no water, drinking puddles and from the toilet… until the toilet runs out of water too.
When a jailer comes to check on them, he finds the crop destroyed. He’s going to murder them unless they escape.
Later, Isa and Ezra meet an Australian boy; together they create a Riverman who leads them into the sewer system in search of Miran who is in deadly peril. Then the rains come.
When I interviewed Zana in 2016 (podcast and video are here, and condensed transcript here), she was already working on The Ones That Disappeared. Inspired by her research that shows slavery is once again flourishing even here in Australia, Zana created a fiction story to explore the issues and raise awareness. During the interview I stumbled, shocked, horrified, to learn that authorities suspect abduction with the intent to enslave is the reason people have been disappearing from refugee internment camps on Australian soil. This is also why minimal effort is made to locate the missing persons. And we don’t even know what is happening in our off-shore camps.
Entwined with the refugee children’s story is Skeet’s story: Skeet is an Australian boy living in poverty with an alcoholic single mum. No one cares about Skeet, so he’s available for sleepovers and to get up to mischief. His interactions with the refugees show his lack of socialisation, which is not to be dismissed as a lack of caring.
Once again, Fraillon has written an excellent story delving into issues that other authors would fear to tread, especially when aiming books at children, but Fraillon leads both children and adults on a riveting ride with an ending that inspires hope for the future.
After Zana Fraillon’s shortlisted Carnegie Medal book, The Bone Sparrow, I was slightly hesitant to read another of her books. How could this book possibly live up to its predecessor? How could Fraillon possibly write about child slavery for children — her target audience — making the story realistic, compelling and suitable? The Ones That Disappeared is mostly realistic apart from when she delves into the fantasy genre. And it is so compelling that I urge you to allow time to read in one sitting.
And as far as suitable goes… well, Doctor Who is marketed for family audiences, including children; The Ones That Disappeared is no more ‘adult’ than Doctor Who, and The Ones that Disappeared is excellent literature that delves into real issues.
While The Bone Sparrow is ambiguous about whether the story delves into the fantasy genre, literary symbolism or mental illness, The Ones That Disappeared definitively wends its way into fantasy. At first it seems it might be coincidence or children’s misconceptions but, by the end, The Ones That Disappeared establishes itself in the fantasy genre while retaining the best aspects of Literature.
Thus, I call on Australia’s speculative fiction and fantasy community to support this excellent book; read it, and vote for it. The Ones That Disappeared should take out the Norma K Hemming Award and a few Aurealis and Ditmar Awards. Kgo.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Format: paper (ebook also available); 253 pages
Imprint: Lothian (Hachette)