The journey was indeed emotional, but what I didn't expect was the surprise plot. In fact, it totally threw me.
Thirteen-year-old Faris is on a boat destined for Australia. With him, his grandmother Jadda. Carefully secreted inside his clothing are his identification papers, wrapped in plastic and firm against his body. Forced to flee his country for Australia, the young lad knows his father, a surgeon, awaits him in Sydney, having also fled his country years before.
As with so many fleeing refugees, even those like Faris, who come from a life of privilege, the boat to Australia is shoddy. Hardly seaworthy. Of the type that won't matter if it sinks.
During this terrible voyage, Faris is desperate to reach Australia. To keep his hopes alive, he spends time dreaming and daydreaming of the Australia he sees on television, in his books at school, on his laptop - beautiful white beaches, abundant spreads of exotic foods and fruits, double-storey houses with green lawns and kangaroos hopping through the streets.
When a storm hits the boat and a freak wave towers over him, Faris knows he will probably never see this beautiful land. So, imagine his surprise when he suddenly wakes up in a fresh bed, in one of the gorgeous neighbourhoods of his Australian dreams and wanders into the kitchen to see Jadda and an impressive spread of lush Australian food for breakfast (there's even a pet koala).
Keen to explore his neighbourhood, Faris takes a walk along the streets and up over a sandhill to a small beach, where several children of varying ages and nationalities, dressed in an assortment of strange, dated, foreign clothing, are playing ball on the beach. Who are these children? And why are they there? How did Faris even get here? Is he dreaming?
As the days unfold and Faris gets to know each and every child, he soon learns this beach is a refuge where children never grow old. Like Groundhog Day, each new day that dawns on the beach is a chance for the children to discover their past and face their uncertain future.
The depth and exploration Jackie French has poured into Refuge belies a review less than 5,000 words long. Her considerable imagination and passion for history spills to overflowing in this astonishing, fictionalised tale that has been woven together from the threads of both real history, family history and the author's own life experiences - some as 'insignificant' as watching people play with a ball on a South Australian beach.
Drawing on the idea that Australia has been a country sought by refugees and new arrivals of some kind or another for as many as 60,000 years, French opens the page on the poignant stories of several refugee children with a gentle hand, revealing their route to Australia - the how and the why they found themselves on our shores. Yet she refuses to dumb down the emotional impact - the terror, the uncertainty, the desperation - refugees have suffered in search of a better land.
Stretching over a time period of 60,000 years, French has seamlessly brought together a cast of characters who in some way share this same uncertainty and desperation. Characters who also share the desire to live and to create a life for themselves in this new land, often against all odds.
At the end of the book, the author, as she is typically wont to do, has provided fascinating author notes and a brilliantly-imagined list of the characters featured in the book, along with characters we never met, complete with the fictionalised (or are they?) lives they later lived in Australia.
There are Ph.Ds, Orders of Australia, organisations and trusts and spouses and children and extraordinary achievements for readers to pore over and delight in. This fictionalisation is so real, I'll admit, I looked some of them up online.
Perhaps I just wanted them to be real.
I was thoroughly moved by Refuge - or moreover, the people I met within its pages. This is a lyrical, highly imaginative and important book. It allows children to truly experience and FEEL the impact of refugee life and how it has formed the country we are today - the world we are today.
Its content will move both children and adult readers, and will hopefully provide even the merest glimpse of the plight of those navigating dangerous seas, just to call Australia home. Indeed, the author reminds us that every inhabitant of this beautiful country, at some time or another, is a descendent of those who once arrived by sea.
Due to the sometimes graphic nature of this book, with themes of mild violence, I would recommend it for children aged 11 or over. Some younger children could also explore this book, with adult guidance.
Stay tuned for our exclusive interview with Jackie French where she talks about writing Refuge - available to Newsletter subscribers on 15 August.
Author: Jackie French
Publisher: A&R, $15.99 RRP
Publication Date: 1 August 2013
For ages: 11+
Type: Junior/Middle Fiction