Wednesday 27 December 2023

Two Sparrowhawks in a Lonely Sky

Two Sparrowhawks in a Lonely Sky by Rebecca Lim (Allen and Unwin), RRP $17.99 Young Adult ISBN 9-781761-180224

Reviewed by Susan Hancy

Hungry, frightened, homeless, and grieving for their ma, who has died of starvation and hard labour at the hands of the 1950’s communist China regime, 13-year-old Fu and 11-year-old Pei have only one direction that they can turn. South, to flee China, with only the hope that luck will somehow allow them to reach their father at the bottom of the world.

Two Sparrowhawks in a Lonely Sky is about a fictional family living in rural China. With the help of well-connected friend, the father of the family, who is a former Kuomintang intelligence officer and enemy of the new Communist state, flees to Australia in 1951. His wife, son, and daughter – Fu and Pei – are left behind, harvesting the land to deliver their required quotas while struggling to feed themselves. Knowing her time is near, Ma gives them the only documentation she has that may help them find their father – a menu, a letter, and a faded photo of him outside a skyscraper in Hong Kong.

On the eve of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, Ma passes away and the state takes possession of her house, pig and chickens. The local official determines that Fu can go to a family that needs a young boy to work in the fields and that Pei be married off. Despite her belief in communist values, a female officer from Beijing is outraged at the thought of an 11-year-old girl being forced to marry, so personally helps them escape to the Southern Sea, where she entrusts them to a strong and savvy seawoman to sail them to Hong Kong. 

In the bustling city of skyscrapers and electric lights, they need to persevere through abuse and rejection, shouted at in a language they don’t understand by “ghost” people (Anglo-Saxons), in order to capture the attention of the acting Trade Commissioner who, luckily for them, is sympathetic to their plight. But with Australia’s tough immigration laws, vocal citizens not open to accepting newcomers with a different skin colour and a treacherous ocean voyage in typhoon season ahead, the reader’s fingers will be crossed to find out whether Fu and Pei are able to reunite with their father.

Two Sparrowhawks is an eye-opening read, not only for the target audience of 11 to 14-year-olds, but also for older readers including adults who may not be aware of the details around Australia’s racist attitudes and immigration restrictions in past decades: happy to take refugees escaping hard labour or wars in their birth lands, only to subject them to hard labour in Australia with limited prospects of longer-term settlement. This novel also gives the reader insights into the culture, practices, and changes in China in the 1950’s.

In addition to Fu and Pei capturing my heart and leaving me curious about how their future life transpires, the motivations of the supporting characters who helped Fu and Pei on their journey are also interesting and I’d love to know what happens to them as well.  A sequel, please, Rebecca Lim!

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