Young adult novel Sparrow follows a boy who has grown up tough. Written from his perspective in the third person, I initially felt it would be more powerful in the first person, but then found as it went along that the author was able to convey stronger messages this way.
The novel starts with his escape from juvenile detention when he and other detainees are out on a boat returning from a boot camp. When the boat breaks down he jumps overboard and swims for sure. This isn’t the first time he has had to survive on his own. He grew up on the streets after his mother died and his brother, Miguel, joined the local ‘ghost boys’, paint sniffers. He was not the ‘only kid in the Territory with a painted top lip’. Sparrow’s family hadn’t ‘been torn apart with the calamity of a cyclone but unravelled in increments, over years’. He stopped speaking when he was five-years-old, which led to great difficulties, particularly when he was facing the law.
At twelve-years-old he lived in a tree in the park, and then in the public toilets with a sleeping bag he found in a bin. There he felt ‘safe and warm’, reflecting how little he had been raised with. This brought tears to my eyes.
Some of the vocabulary didn’t seem appropriate for the age the book is pitched at – ‘From his eyrie, the gulf islands were laid out like sculptures on an infinite cerulean canvas’. But the message still comes through.
The book recognises how hard it is for young people like Sparrow and Miguel without judgement. They are dealing with the memories of their past, their mother’s addiction that led to the neglect of her sons, the physical and emotional pain.
I preferred the reflection on the boy’s earlier life, than that of his survival, and ‘the animal that he had become’ eating whatever he could catch. But it brought about a satisfying ending. Along the ways he learns that ‘kindness pays’.