STARRED REVIEW
January 2018

In search of sanctuary

By Sharon Bala

Inspired by true events, Sharon Bala’s multifaceted debut novel is not only about a group of 500 Sri Lankan refugees, the titular “boat people,” but also about the people they left behind and those who will decide their fates upon arriving in 2009 Vancouver.

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Inspired by true events, Sharon Bala’s multifaceted debut novel is not only about a group of 500 Sri Lankan refugees, the titular “boat people,” but also about the people they left behind and those who will decide their fates upon arriving in 2009 Vancouver.

Bala builds her narrative around one of the refugees, Mahindan, and his 6-year-old son, Sellian. Mahindan’s case (as well as four other refugees’) is represented by Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian law student who has been grudgingly assigned to refugee law her last semester. While Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, adjudicates each case, her mother, Kumi, uncovers secrets from her childhood partly spent in an internment camp. However truthfully he tells it, reception of Mahindan’s story is vulnerable to political pressures and other characters’ moods. Will Priya convince Grace to grant him asylum, or will he be deported?

Cinematic details—such as sights and sounds at the market in Mahindan’s hometown and characters’ gestures as they talk—transport us to a tension-rich drama. Bala moves fluidly from past to present, mixing memories with current crises. In one scene, while Christmas lights and snowfall glisten outside, Priya’s uncle confesses to her the story of his own flight from Sri Lanka. In another, Kumi’s internment story is set alongside a discussion between Grace and the Prime Minister, who believes the threat of terrorism is high among the refugees. Such juxtapositions build and maintain suspense all the way to the last line, where readers are left hanging, as if justice is in our hands. How do we react to the immigration crisis? What would we do in any of these characters’ shoes?

The Boat People reminds us of the fragile nature of truth.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Boat People

The Boat People

By Sharon Bala
Doubleday
ISBN 9780385542296

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