Inside the front cover of the review copy is a note to her readers from Zana Fraillon; she reminds us that ‘there are currently more than 59.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, more than at any other time in human history’. Over a crowded summer, the desperate sea crossings, the mud or dust of the camps, the hollowed eyes, have faded into yesterday’s news. But then, what else is there to say?
Fraillon’s anger and compassion have plenty to say. Although her setting is a camp on the remote North Coast of her native Australia, she argues that her story is equally relevant to Europe or the States. This is not an easy teenage read in content or telling; Orion’s decision to publish is to be admired, alongside their plan to work with Book Aid International (as reported on the web) to ‘put a book into the hands of a refugee child for every copy of The Bone Sparrow sold’.
Subhi tells his own story – or rather, the many stories whirling in his restless brain: about his father, still somewhere in the family’s homeland of Myanmar; his internal conversations with a sardonic rubber duck, one of his few possessions; his adventures with Eli, his older, camp-wise friend; his dreams when the Night Seas come, washing truths and treasures into his sleeping mind. His own history is at once dramatic and monotonous – he was born in the camp where, some ten years later, he still lives with his Maa and older sister Queeny. They are Rohingya people, an ethnic Muslim minority who, says Fraillon, are being hunted into extinction by the Myanmar government. His home is more Prisoner-of-War Camp than Reception Centre for refugees. Razor wire tops the chain link fences, guarded each night by glaring lights. Order is enforced by uniformed ‘Jackets’. A few show occasional kindness to the children – it was one of the Jackets, Harvey, who brought in Subhi’s talkative rubber duck, along with an inflatable pool for the kids when the searing heat was at its most ferocious. At the other extreme is Beaver, a brutal officer who thinks nothing of kicking the inmates or tipping the meagre rations of Subhi’s ailing mother into the dirt where she must grovel to retrieve it ‘covered with grit and all’.
Not far beyond the wire lives 10-year-old Jimmie, with her Dad and brother; her mum’s been dead for three years. Her family are poor by Australian standards, though everything’s relative alongside life in the camp. Jimmie needs stories too, but school’s an hour away by bus and she often doesn’t get there, so she’s never learned to read; and that means she can’t explore the legacy her mum has left in an old leather notebook. If only she could read her mother’s words, she’d know the story of her own family, and so who she is; and maybe also something about The Bone Sparrow which hangs from the necklace her mum slipped round her neck when she knew death was not far away. Subhi, on the other hand, has read every book he can get his hands on. When Jimmie’s curiosity prompts her to find a way through the fence (far more plausibly than the intruder in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) she meets Subhi; as their friendship grows, he reveals to Jimmie the secrets of that notebook.
The novel begins slowly, perhaps necessarily so if the unchanging drift of camp life is to be tasted. Then the pace intensifies and violence inevitably erupts. No easy answers emerge, though in a final poetic moment of revelation, Subhi finds renewed strength. Fraillon’s fierce Afterword wishes ‘we lived in a world where hope and humanity can triumph over the self-serving policies of governments worldwide who are content to imprison those who are simply struggling to survive.’ She can offer no more than ‘Perhaps we will, Someday’; but in the meantime, she has provided a way-in for young readers to a crisis overwhelming in its complexity and suffering.