The Bone Sparrow is a timely book, given the ongoing debate about refugees and what Australia should do when they seek asylum here. It says in the front of the book that it is for primary school children, but some of the content is quite brutal so I would suggest it for mature young adults and older. It is like a contemporary The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, set in an Australian detention centre.
Subhi was born in the detention centre the novel is set in, so it is all he knows. He hears stories about their home countries from his mother, sister and other detainees. Burma, now known as Myanmar, was home for his family and where he is told is father is still waiting to join them. They are Rohingya, an ethnic minority, recognised as one of the most persecuted people in the world. They were told they don’t exist, had their houses burned down, animals killed, couldn’t go to school, work, hospital, were tortured, arrested and forced to do menial labour without pay. They ran from the police, some disappeared and didn’t come back, some were sent away, others were killed.
The centre is depicted in all of its horror – flies and worms in the food, mould growing next to the beds in the tents they live in. They receive the most basic of provisions – fourteen pairs of shoes between 900 people, ill-fitting pants needing rubber bands to hold them up,
To deal with it Subhi’s imagination conjures up the ‘Night Sea’ that brings him treasures from his father, even though they are in the middle of the desert.
Jimmie, a girl who lives close to the centre, had heard people say ‘how lucky those people were in the Centre. How they had everything. Good clothes and thousands of toys and books and computers and teachers and doctors … [and] brand-new bikes’. So one night she goes to find out for herself. She manages to get through the fence and meets Subhi. She can’t read so she asks him to read the book that her mother wrote before she died. This starts a routine where they hide in the night and share stories, hot chocolate and their lives.
The ‘Jackets’ – officers that work in the centre vary from the cruel and vicious Beaver, to Harvey who treats them as well as he can. The detainees of all ages and genders deal with life in the centre and an unknown future in different ways, and some resort to self-harm in protest.
Jimmie wants to know ‘how they can help, so that no one has to sew their lips together. … why they have been locked up in there for so long. Why no one is listening. Why it is illegal for people to try and save their families. Why it is illegal to want to live’. Out of the mouths of babes, or children at least. Looking at this subject matter through the eyes of a child who has been detained and another who hears about his experiences, makes it all the more powerful.
The hope is always there, that ‘Someday’ will come along and free them all. The sparrow is seen as the bearer of death but the bone sparrow is meant to be good luck. Subhi and his family deal with both. This novel exposes us to the harsh and unjust detention of asylum seekers. As the Rohingya song says, ‘If we all sing together, our song can light up the night’. This book can enlighten an upcoming generation who will hopefully look at asylum seekers with some compassion and understanding.