This was an interesting read after reading Between Shades of Gray. Both are set in detention centres, one during the second world war and the other, The Bone Sparrow, set in the present day. Present day Australia to be precise.
The characters in this book are from Myanmar/ Burma and are part of the Rohingya people, one of the most persecuted groups of people on earth. They have been expelled from Myanmar as the government there have classified them as illegal immigrants as a result of the ongoing civil war. In 2015 all Rohingya people were expelled from Myanmar and it caused a humanitarian crisis with thousands living on boats as they were effectively stateless. Many ended up washing up on the coast of Australia where they are still being held in detention centres. If you are in a detention centre in Australia you will never qualify as an Australian citizen according to the afterword in this book. Ever. What will happen to the people who are in there is anyone’s guess.
So, there’s your background, taken from Wikipedia so who knows how accurate it is! The point is that these people have no hope. The main character is a small boy called Subhi. He is probably about 10 years old and was born in the detention centre. He lives there with his mum and his sister Queeny. She isn’t really called Queeny but that is what everyone calls her. He lives in the family section of the detention centre known as family 3. Also living there is his best friend Eli, who is a little older then him. Eli is a bit of a ducker and diver and manages to acquire things that other people need. The conditions in the camp sound pretty horrendous and, although Subhi doesn’t really know any different, he knows that they should not have to live like this. There are other sections of the camp, mostly all men sections and one for people who try and hurt themselves. Subhi’s Maa is very depressed and seems to spend all day in bed starring at the wall. His dad, or Ba is not with them and it’s not very clear where he is.
The other narrator in the book is an Australian girl called Jimmie. She lives with her brother, Jonah who is older than her, and her dad. Her mum has recently died and they all a bit of a mess. Jimmie’s sections aren’t very long but they are interesting. They are not really an antidote to Subhi’s situation and she is suffering from neglect by her dad, who seems to be suffering from depression as well. She rarely goes to school and as a result cannot read. She carries with her a book of stories that her mum has given her about her family history. One day she decides to explore down the road by the camp and manages to hop the fence. That’s where she meets Subhi. Subhi can read her stories and she discovers things about her family and where they came from. She also wears a sparrow necklace and the stories explain to her the origin of it.
Things in the camp in the meantime are hotting up. Eli is transferred to the male wing, even though he is clearly not an adult and the men decide to go on hunger strike. Things start to get nasty for Jimmie as well when she picks up an infection.
The relationship between Subhi and Jimmie is lovely. The plight of the people suffering in the camps is horrendous and little known. The bigger question is what can we do with all the displaced people in the world who cannot go back to where they were born, but cannot live in the country they have ended up in. The refugee crisis in Europe is much closer to home but no less disturbing.
A thought provoking read, like much of the Carnegie shortlist this year. I enjoyed it more than I expected to.
Further reading: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
PS> my favourite character is the plastic duck… he has a great sense of humour.