Book Review: “The Bone Sparrow” by Zana Fraillon (#AWW2017 #LoveOzYa @ZanaFraillon @ReadingsBooks)


Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow (Lothian/Hachette Australia, 2016) is one of six titles shortlisted for the inaugural Readings Young Adult Book Prize, which celebrates emerging voices in Australian youth literature. The book won the Australian Book Industry Awards 2017 – Book of the Year for Older Children (age range 8 to 14 years), and was one of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Notables 2017 for older readers. It was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2017 – Writing for Young Adults.

The Bone Sparrow tells the story of nine-year-old Subhi, a member of the Rohingya people from Burma who was born and raised in an unnamed Australian detention centre. Subhi and his mother and sister are waiting to be processed as refugees. However, in this fenced and forgotten camp, they and other asylum seekers have endured much hostility and abuse and are now fighting for their freedom – again. All they want is for the world to know that they exist, that their voice deserves to be heard.

Like Emma Donoghue’s Room (2015), this story is told from the perspective of a child, whose vivid imagination and unique use of illustrative language helps to ease the physical, emotional and psychological trauma that we as readers feel on behalf of the child. Yet, the more the child leans toward fantasy as a way to cope with the real world in the story, the more we fear for his welfare (and hers in the case of Jimmie, Subhi’s friend outside of the detention centre). The use of first-person narrative in present tense further enhances the horror and pain the child constantly experiences and “naturally” considers as part of his reality.

The story is beautifully told, yet it breaks a reader’s heart to see how children slowly lose their innocence as they grow up and encounter adulthood. This suffering is universal and we all know it well, which is why Subhi’s and Jimmie’s are such powerful tales. Some readers may find it interesting that sparrows are also described as harbingers of death in Stephen King’s Bag of Bones (1998). However, Subhi’s story particularly reminds me of Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning (2005), which also features the tragic plight of minority groups in Burma, today’s Myanmar.

As readers finish The Bone Sparrow they would recall the author’s dedication at the start:

To those who refuse to be blinded by the glare or deafened by the hush, who are brave enough to question, and curious enough to explore. To those who will not forget. You will make a difference. And to the rest of us, so that we may learn how.

And then again readers are drawn to the Author’s Note at the end of this book:

It is difficult to imagine what living in conditions such as these must be like [i.e. hundreds of thousands asylum seekers and refugees detained and treated like criminals across Australia, the UK, USA and Europe]. I hope I have done some justice to the stories of those who have suffered, and those who are still suffering. With the passing of a new law in the Australian parliament it is now a criminal offence to disclose the mistreatment of refugees in detention. This deliberate effort to hide the reality of detention makes it harder for people who care to know what is happening, but there is still information available for those wishing to find it…

I wish this book had never needed to be written. I wish that the circumstances which led me to write this story had never occurred. I wish that 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. Perhaps we will, Someday. (p.231-232)

Obviously books like The Bone Sparrow need to and will continue to be written and read, and it is great to see an increasing number of established authors expressing their care and support for the global issue that is the treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum. Somehow I wish more emerging voices of writers of diverse migrant and refugee backgrounds could also be encouraged by mainstream media and publishers worldwide, so that they would be able to tell their stories in their own voices, using their own words. Their storytelling might not be as fluent and elegant, but it is theirs. With a bit of help, their stories can also take wing and fly.

You can find more information about Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow here.


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