In the Australian detention camp where he was born and still lives, Subhi, 10, a Rohingya boy, shares a crowded tent with his mother, older sister, and other refugees and dreams of an unbounded world and the Night Sea.
Stories feed Subhi’s vivid imagination, especially the ones his mother tells of life back in Burma, but Maá rarely speaks now. Camp living conditions are dire: borderline inedible food, appalling sanitation, and the Jackets’ inhumane treatment, which ranges from indifferent to cruel (kindly guard Harvey is the exception). Subhi helps his friend Eli trade valuable items among detainees until Eli is sent to live with the adult single men; then his companionship is limited to the Shakespeare duck, a rubber duck he keeps in his pocket to talk to—and who talks back in his portion of the narration. Near the camp, another child, Jimmie, also 10, lives with her father and brother. Jimmie treasures but can’t yet read her deceased mother’s notebook of stories. Following a (false) rumor that detained kids have bikes, Jimmie sneaks into the camp unnoticed. After meeting Subhi, who’s happy to read the stories to her, she visits frequently, bringing hot chocolate and snacks. These easily accomplished visits don’t square with the established gulaglike conditions and contradict the brutal realities already conveyed. Suspenseful but less-consequential, this weaker subplot dilutes the starker, more powerful tragedy and, like Jimmie’s character, is less fleshed out. Readers will trip over the plot’s loose ends.
If the strong lyrical voice can’t quite compensate for the plot’s awkward execution, it points to a reservoir of underutilized talent in an author worth watching. (afterword) (Fiction. 9-12)