Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of a distant homeland, life behind the fences is all he has ever known. But as he grows, his imagination gets bigger too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. The night sea brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories.
The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl who appears from the other side of the wires, and brings a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family's love songs and tragedies.
Subhi and Jimmie might both find a way to freedom, as their tales unfold. But not until each of them has been braver than ever before.
Oh, dear, what to say? It is so very sad! The author says in the afterword that she wishes this book didn't have to be written, that the story and characters are fictional, but the issues aren't. It's true, too. We read about it every day in the papers, whatever we can still get, since the government has threatened prosecution to anyone who has worked in these places and spoken out about them. You know - "fake news"? All I can say is, I didn't vote for them!
And the thought of a child actually born in one of these places is truly awful.
But for Subhi, it's all he knows. He makes the best of his situation. When the human rights advocates come to inspect the camp from time to time, the inmates know they will get a decent meal or two, and Subhi pretends it's for his birthday. His imagination frees him and one day a girl from Outside, whose mother has died and father is grieving with her, smuggles the Outside into the camp, along with hot chocolate and a book written by hand by her beloved mother, with the fantastical story of the bone sparrow she wears around her neck, given to her by her mother just before she died. Because of all the moving around she has done, Jimmie hasn't had time to learn to read, so she asks Subhi, whose English is fine(born there, remember?) and who can read, to read it to her. The story he reads is a part of the narrative, a sub-narrative about Jimmie's ancestors.
The characters are drawn with care and love. There is even one decent camp guard, Harvey, who looks after Subhi when he needs it and fills a rubber pool for the children in the hottest weather. When it's time for Subhi to have his say about a tragedy that had occurred, he knows he will have to involve Harvey, who witnessed it, but Harvey lets him know it's the right thing to do.
And there's a rubber ducky, the Shakespeare duck, which makes snarky comments from Subhi's pocket, in his imagination. This brings a little much-needed humour to an otherwise terribly sad story.
It rather reminds me of Morris Gleitzman in style, sort of Boy Overboard and Girl Underground meets Once. If you liked those books, you will find much to like in this one. I believe the kids will like it too. I'll be recommending it.
Meanwhile, I can only hope that this year's CBCA shortlist has at least two books with some real humour in them(I know there's one, Words In Deep Blue); for this one, stock up on the boxes of tissues!