Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Boat People

Author: Sharon Bala
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Canadian
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 388
Source: Publisher
Publisher: McClelland and Stewart
First Published:
First Line: "Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes."

Book Description from GoodReads: In the tradition of Lawrence Hill's The Illegal, Chris Cleave's Little Bee, and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, and inspired by real incident, The Boat People is an extraordinary novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage to reach Canada - only to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism in their new land.

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.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: The Boat People is a timely book that focuses on an important issue - the refugee crisis. It is based on a real-life incident that occurred in 2010 off the coast of British Columbia when a cargo ship of 500 Sri Lankan refugees were seeking asylum in Canada.

Bala uses a few different viewpoints to tell the story but I was most engaged with Mahindan and his son who, along with the other refugees, fear deportation as the Canadian government determines who can stay and who will be sent back to an uncertain future. The other POVs were from Priya, a young Canadian-Sri Lankan lawyer and Grace, a Canadian-Japanese adjudicator whose job is to determine which refugees stay, but I found these story lines much less compelling.

I applaud Bala for addressing this important issue and can honestly say I know more about the refugee issue, but I struggled with this book. There is a lot of information given about immigrant issues but how the information was given gave the book a narrative non-fiction feel, instead of the intended fictional style. There was also a lack of flow and nuance to the telling and some plot points, namely Grace's mother's story, felt forced and didn't mesh well with the refugee issue. Similar, but not the same.

Overall, this debut gave me much to think about and handles the topic with compassion and sensitivity. Bala shows the complexities, emotions, politics and frustrations of the refugee issue but the story fell a little short for me and left me with a frustrating ending. I think this book is a good starting point for readers to sympathize with the issues refugees face and would make a good book club selection.

Disclaimer: This ARC was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

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