The Bone Sparrow starts with a red and mysterious sea lapping at what is revealed to be the tent of Subhi- an imaginary sea that visits him sometimes and leaves treasures from the father he has never met, across the sea in Burma.
Subhi has never seen the real sea. Nor Burma. Nor anything that exists outside the fences of the detention centre in which he was born. With his sister Queenie and his listless, inert Maá, and hundreds of other refugees that arrived illegally by boat to what is revealed to be Australia, Subhi waits. They eat low-nutrition, out of date food. They cower from the angry, violent 'Jackets' who keep order in the centre. They crowd into rat-infested tents, with itchy, parasite riddled blankets. They get ill and die waiting. They scuff around in the dirt, hoping for a while, then resigning themselves to the fact that nobody cares what happens to them. Nobody is bothered what goes on behind the wire and the fences because these are not people. These are problems. Burdens.
The book begins with Subhi and his friend Eli running packages around camp- swapping soap for toothbrushes, underwear for bottled water, things like that. We get a sense of the resentment of the Australian guards for the refugees that they keep corralled; their occasional, inexplicable cruelty, their unpredictability, their indifference. All except for one nice one, called Harvey that behaves like an actual human.
Subhi's existence is pretty grim. No school, no future, no way out, he consoles himself with stories. He draws the stories and the memories of the older detainees, because he has no memories of his own. He lives for stories of hope and escape, of tall trees and fresh air. The monotony of camp life is broken one night when Subhi meets Jimmie- a scruffy, curious little girl form the outside who slipped under the fence. She brings with her new stories, the story of the Bone Sparrow that she wears around her neck. It tells the story of her own immigrant family, generations before, who survived due to the luck of the sparrow. Through Jimmie's friendship and companionship, and her flasks of hot chocolate, Subhi starts to see the power of hope- he starts to see what his sister and Eli have seen all along; that they should matter, and they should never give up on the idea of freedom.
I loved the characters in this novel. I loved Subhi's cheekiness, his inextinguishable hope and thirst for stories. I loved his imagination and his fierce love for what remains of his family. I loved how he tried to ease the suffering of everyone around him, even the rats. He is the absolute embodiment of compassion, even when he has no reason to ever be nice to anybody. Jimmie too was a curious, spunky and intensely likable kid who befriends first and asks questions later. Equally enthralled by stories, she turned Subhi's into somebody who thinks and waits into somebody that takes action; they made the best team.
It's a book that is unexpectedly funny in places, and inevitably tragic in others. The injustice and the inhumanity of Subhi's existence is powerfully depicted, and the book is a real empathy tonic. I defy anybody who reads it to not condemn the way the World treats those who are in need. The luxury of peace and relative stability is something that we in the UK, America and Australia (to name a few) take for granted, almost feel that we deserve as a matter of course, and desire to keep for ourselves. It amazes me how people act like they are born within the arbitrary borders of a peaceful nation down to their own good merit and foresight, not through sheer chance and co-incidence.
I can only hope that this becomes a modern classic- the Boy in the Striped Pajamas for the modern humanitarian crises. I