Book: The Boat People
Author: Sharon Bala
Genre: realistic fiction
What it’s about: When a boat of Tamil refugees arrives in Canada they think they’ve finally found a place of peace and safety–but fear, intolerance, and bureaucratic political systems get in the way. The five hundred odd refugees fleeing torture, death or forcible conscription in Sri Lanka find themselves imprisoned and stuck as they sit through hearing after hearing to determine if they can even qualify for refugee status.
Mahindan, a single father whose wife died back in Sri Lanka, mourns his separation from his seven-year old son who is put in the women’s prison. Priya, a second generation immigrant and law student, finds herself getting invested in the cases of the refugees even though she always wanted to go into corporate law (and is pretty sure she was only selected for this assignment because of her own Tamil heritage). Grace is an adjudicator overseeing the cases of the refugees and struggling against the fear that she might let a terrorist into the country–despite the fact that her mother keeps comparing their plight to that of Grace’s grandparents, Japanese immigrants who lost everything to the government in World War II. Their stories intertwine in heart wrenching ways as we slowly begin to see that nothing is quite as simple as it seems.
My thoughts: I really, really enjoyed this book. A book about refugees is obviously dealing with a timely and hot button topic, but Bala handles the story with so much grace and empathy. The story lines compliment and build on one another in beautiful—and sometimes surprising—ways. As the story digs deeper into the past of the refugees and the pasts and motivations of the others involved in their cases, it becomes clear that nothing is quite as simple as it seems. As Grace finds herself asking at one point: is a man forced under duress to fix a bus for a terrorist group that is later used in a bombing complicit…or merely a man without a choice?
Though not all of the characters motivations are for the good of the refugees, all of the characters are doing what they think is best. The fact that these characters—Grace and Priya, in particular—grow and realize that things are more gray than they first appear makes them much more sympathetic. But even when Grace refuses to draw the lines of connection between the current refugee crisis and her own family history involving the Japanese immigrants and citizens of Canada being forced into camps during World War II, even when she holds to questionable politics and refuses to understand the horrifying position these refugees faced back home in Sri Lanka, still Bala somehow manages to make her an empathetic character. That’s the mark of a good writer.
It’s a lovely book and a really, really heartbreaking look at what it’s like to be a refugee and how broken the system is. Not to mention, an important reminder that history repeats itself in so many ways and that intolerance is something that has to be actively fought against. It’s just a beautiful and timely work of literary fiction, really.
My one real issue with the book? The ending. It was incredibly abrupt. I don’t necessarily mind an ending that is open ended or inconclusive—I quite like those actually—but this one just felt a little too sudden for me.
It’s not a pessimistic book, but I also wouldn’t describe it as particularly hopeful. I listened to an excellent interview with the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates where he talked about the pressure to make narratives (particularly Black narratives) hopeful and his reluctance to fabricate something that might not necessarily be there just to comfort (White) people. That’s stuck with me, and I think there’s something to that thought in relation to this book as well. The Boat People ends without us knowing for sure how things are going to turn out. Maybe for the best, maybe not. We don’t know. But I don’t think the point of the book is to give us hope for a better future, I think it’s (in part, at least) to remind us that nothing changes unless we work for that change. History repeats itself–unless we prevent it. People’s rights are taken away–unless we fight for them. We have to create that better future for ourselves.
Overall it’s a really excellent book. Difficult and heartbreaking, yes, but very good all the same. If you like realistic fiction–particularly fiction that deals with law and humanitarian issues–this is definitely a book you should have on your radar for 2018 releases.
The Boat People comes out January 9th 2018. You can preorder it here.
TL;DR: A thoughtful and heart wrenching portrait of refugees and immigrants across generations.
*I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*