Zana Fraillon is a children’s author from Australia, moved to highlight the present day humanitarian crisis of asylum seekers and the routine internment of refugees. While her novel is fictional, it is founded in fact and focuses on the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
The Bone Sparrow, like many books based on real events, is an exercise in empathy. Its charm depends on the reader’s engagement with the main protagonist. Subhi is an asylum seeker born in a refugee camp in present-day Australia whose fertile imagination powers a rich interior life. The fact that Subhi has known no other world outside of his ‘captivity’ allows the author to imbue him with wonder and innocence. Without bitterness he observes the cruelty and sadness of his situation, always holding on for ‘one day’ when it will all be better.
Enter Jimmie, a young girl from ‘Outside’. Who, while born free, is in some ways not much better off than Subhi. Both children have absentee parents, whom they connect with via stories of family legends. And both must struggle to make sense of an unkind world, indifferent to their needs. Can they somehow save each other? The book is a slow burner, with a slightly ambiguous ending, but it never loses hope. The Bone Sparrow may be about refugees, but it is also about the power of imagination, friendship, and the sustenance of storytelling.