The Boat People by Sharon Bala

37798267.jpg*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: The Boat People

Author: Sharon Bala

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart

Publication Date: January 2, 2018

ISBN: 9780771024290

Synopsis from Goodreads:
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war reaches Canadian shores, the young father believes he and his six-year-old son can finally begin a new life. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist organization infamous for their suicide attacks. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.
Told through the alternating perspectives of Mahindan; his lawyer, Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian who reluctantly represents the refugees; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who must decide Mahindan’s fate, 
The Boat People is a spellbinding and timely novel that provokes a deeply compassionate lens through which to view the current refugee crisis. 


A Canada Reads 2018 contender, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People is an emotional and moving story based on the arrival of the Ocean Lady (2009) and the MV Sun Sea (2010) on the coast of British Columbia with over 500 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. Bala’s story weaves together multiple tales: Priya is a law student who’s Tamil family does not talk about their past and distances themselves from Tamil culture in Canada; Grace is the daughter of a Japanese immigrant who spent her young life persecuted and interned by Canadians during WWII; and Mahindan and his Son have arrived in Canada after escaping the horrors of war-ravaged Sri Lanka, torn apart by the feud between the Tigers and the Sinhalese.

The story feels fast paced as each chapter switches perspective, moving from one character to the next. This creates a devastating and exhilarating effect where not a single character feels as though the have an ounce of control. Although some characters hold power over others, they are all enslaved to bureaucracies and situations much larger than themselves. The characters, although vastly different, are revealed to be so truly similar to one another in fundamental and very human ways. Not one is free from stress, fear, responsibility, or loss. They all have families and have things to hide. But they are all, essentially, seeking freedom to live in a world free of pain and suffering, where prejudice does not exist and they can work hard to achieve a life for themselves and their families. Although this is not a world that yet exists, and they are plagued by the judgment of the media and the persecution of the government–on various fronts–each fights to do what is right and to tell the truth.

Bala’s book highlights the fact that most Canadians are immigrants or refugees or are the descendants of immigrants and refugees. So many peoples from a vast variety of backgrounds have faced persecution in this country. It is something that simultaneously unites and divides us. It is a tool of separation when it suits someone’s purpose, but as Bala points out, it binds us together in a common experience. Her novel points to the arbitrary process of a broken immigration system, how judiciary officials are called to make a decision of entry based on a story told through a language barrier, spotty documentation, inaccurate or unavailable information from the country of origin. These decisions are judgement calls, based on one person’s ability to judge the sincerity of another.

Bala’s message is loud and clear and it’s one of understanding and compassion. It offers many sides of a story to offer varying perspectives. The author’s writing asks the reader to pause to contemplate the system, to think not only of themselves, but to put themselves in another’s shoes before making any sort of decision. This is a book to approach with an open heart and open mind. What you’ll find inside is something breath-taking.


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