Book Review: “The Bone Sparrow” by Zana Fraillon (@HachetteAus)


Zana Fraillon’s young adult novel The Bone Sparrow tells the story of nine-year-old Subhi, a member of the Rohingya people from Burma (today’s Myanmar) who was born and raised in an unnamed Australian detention centre. Life in this permanently fenced and forgotten camp is all he has ever known.

While Subhi and other asylum seekers are waiting to be processed as refugees, they have endured much hostility and abuse. Fortunately, the boy’s vivid imagination and unique use of illustrative language helps to ease the physical, emotional and psychological trauma that we as readers feel on their behalf.

However, the more Subhi leans toward fantasy as a way to cope with the tragically small(-minded) world in this story, the more we fear for his welfare. 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.

To borrow the words of renowned English poet William Blake, the more Subhi is able to “see a world in a grain of sand,/ and a Heaven in a wild flower”, the better we get to understand how “a robin red breast in a cage/ puts all Heaven in a rage”. Precisely because this story of a caged child is beautifully told, it is both alarming and distressing.

It breaks one’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 story is so powerful.

Also highlighted in The Bone Sparrow is the story of Jimmie, a girl from the other side of the wired fence who is grieving the loss of her mother. As Subhi helps Jimmie read and understand the tragic past of her family, they form an unlikely friendship. While both are disadvantaged and marginalised, the children know they have to be brave to find a way to freedom.

Indeed, The Bone Sparrow is ultimately a book about courage and undying optimism, especially in the face of adversity. As readers finish the book, 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.”

The Bone Sparrow won the 2017 Readings Young Adult Book Prize and 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.

Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow was published by Hachette Australia in June 2016. You can find a print copy of the book in your local library.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “The tale of a caged child”, by Ferntree Gully Star Mail, March 9, 2021, page 10.



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