Every so often a book comes along that will stay with you. They have a character whose voice and story ring so clear, and you feel just a little bit different after having read it. Zana Fraillon’s novel for older readers, The Bone Sparrow, is one of these.
Nine year old Subhi’s voice comes through strongly from the very first page. He’s imagining a beautiful ocean so intently he can almost hear the waves. His big sister, Queeny, can’t hear them but his mother, Maá, can. Subhi calls it his ‘Night Sea,’ and believes it washes up treasures. Before long we realise that Subhi has never seen or heard the ocean for real – because he has spent his entire life behind a fence.
Subhi was born in an Australian immigration detention centre after his mother and sister fled their home country. Life behind the fence is tough, and sometimes seems to have more of the fear and violence they were trying to escape. One night when he can’t sleep and is wandering the camp, Subhi comes across a young girl – she has shoes, a backpack, a torch – she is from Outside.
Jimmie doesn’t feel complete after the loss of her mother. The strongest links she has left to her are the sparrow necklace she wears and a notebook of stories, handwritten by her mother and based on her family’s past. Living in a rural community, Jimmie doesn’t get to school all that often, and hasn’t learnt to read – leaving her mother’s stories out of reach. After they meet, Subhi, a voracious reader (although there’s not much to choose from in the centre) reads stories from the notebook aloud to Jimmie, night by night, one by one. When she meets Subhi, Jimmie forms a new connection and also strengthens one she thought was gone forever. As they share and savour each story, their friendship deepens. When life both inside and outside the camp reaches a breaking point, stories provide comfort – and healing.
Although it is certainly not graphic, The Bone Sparrow does not shy away from the darker, distressing issues. Early on Subhi and his best friend Eli play ‘Guess the Food’ with their unidentifiable brown mush. “Maá tells me to never to look too closely,” says Subhi, “and whenever I find flies or worms, she says I’m extra lucky because they give me protein.” Subhi’s eternal optimism, his imagination, the joy that he manages to find in even the smallest things (quite literally), is presented in stark contrast to the life he has been forced to lead. By the end of the book, both Subhi and Jimmie have had to show incredible bravery far beyond their years. It is a story that is as heart-warming as it is heartbreaking.
Author Zana Fraillon, who lives in Melbourne, says in her Author’s Note that while The Bone Sparrow is fictional, it is “based on an all true reality.” Although the characters, events and places are made up “the policies which have put people like Subhi and his family in detention, and the conditions described, are not.”
This is a book that covers a range of important themes, such as friendship and family, grief and loss, hope and fear. As such, it will certainly find a place in classrooms and libraries all over the country, and we recommend it for older readers, aged 9 – 12 as it does deal with content that readers may find upsetting.
There are many important messages readers could take away from The Bone Sparrow, but the simplest one, as Zana herself says, is this: “the world we live in doesn’t have to be this way. There is always hope, even in the darkest of situations. Subhi talks about his ‘Someday’, and I think this is something we can all hold onto at different points in our lives…”