Book Review: The Boat People by Sharon Bala

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I almost didn’t finish this book. It is well-written, well-researched, and compelling. It was shortlisted for the most recent Canada Reads competition. I’d read several very positive reviews. (Anne’s over at ivereadthis.com forced me to move the book up my To Read list.)  I did finish The Boat People and I’m glad I did but it was such a hard, frustrating read.

This is a book about refugees. Specifically, a boatload of approximately 500 Tamil refugees who arrive in Canada, fleeing violence in Sri Lanka. While the book is fiction, it is inspired by real life situations and, of course, the real history of Sri Lanka. This book was yet another reminder of how flawed the governmental process of accepting refugees is in Canada. (See: All We Leave Behind by Carol Off). A reminder of the horrors that refugees go through to enter Canada and how their struggles don’t magically end when they arrive. (See: Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist by Martina Scholtens. It’s a reminder that people don’t leave everything they’ve ever known – their homes, their families, their jobs, their language – and get on a crammed and filthy boat to enter a country they don’t know unless they are truly, truly desperate.

The Boat People is ambitious in its scope, covering multiple aspects of this refugee crisis. Mahindan and his son Sellian show the perspective of the refugees, complete with flashbacks to their lives in Sri Lanka. Upon arrival, the refugees are “housed” in a prison while they await hearing after hearing, a process that drags out for months. Because Sellian is only six-years-old, he is housed with the women, separated from his father. This is a heartbreaking scene and, as a parent, one that was especially hard to read. My instinct was that no one could have convinced me to give up my child but Bala does a good job of showing Mahindan’s thoughts and his desire to do whatever is best for his son. This is further shown in the scenes in Sri Lanka, as we are shown their former life and the increasing dangers the Tamils faced.

Priya is a young law student, a first generation Sri Lankan, who wants to pursue corporate law but is pulled into the refugee hearings. At first it is only because of her own Tamil background but as she becomes more and more involved in the lives of the refugees she also learns more of her own family history and gains a greater understanding of the complexities of refugee experience.

Grace is one of the adjudicators who presides over the hearings. She is newly appointed and quite black-and-white in her thinking. Her sections infuriated me the most given how close-minded she was. I understand that here Bala wished to show the other side – the fear and misunderstanding that many Canadians do feel toward refugees, especially when they arrive in mass numbers. I felt though that she swung too far in the other direction and Grace became something of a caricature. Grace herself is of Japanese descent, third generation, the granddaughter of Japanese-Canadians who were interred during World War Two. Grace’s twin daughters and her mother become interested in their family history and what was stolen from them by the government but Grace continually discourages them. At one point, one of her teenage daughters is surprised that Japanese names are written in reverse (last name first). This seems like such basic knowledge of Japanese culture that it paints Grace in a really negative light. Why has she kept almost all Japanese knowledge from her children?

One of the things I love about Canada is that we are a multicultural country, full of immigrants and refugees. It can be all to easy to think of ourselves as more worthy of being Canadian than a newer arrival but the vast majority of Canadians come from elsewhere.  I think we are our best version when we remember this and embrace it.

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Book Review: Lost in September by Kathleen Winter

Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

“This book is so weird,” was my almost constant thought as I read Lost in September. It wasn’t until I was around three quarters of the way through that I felt I had a handle on what I was supposed to believe/see. Sometimes that made for a frustrating reading experience but overall, Winter handles it with charm and though I began the novel thinking I wouldn’t finish it, I found myself pushing through to find out what was going on.

While I’m not sure the names Wolfe and Montcalm are world renowned, you can’t make it through the Canadian school system without hearing them paired together, along with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. This battle in Quebec between the French and the English determined the fate of Canada. Ie: why most of us speak English today.

Less known is that a few years before this monumental battle James Wolfe was scheduled to have eleven days leave from his army position. Unfortunately, his leave overlapped with a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and those eleven days were lost completely. Wolfe never got his longed for holiday and instead died on the Plains of Abraham.

Lost in September takes place in 2017, where every September Wolfe roams Montreal, heartbroken over what he has lost and searching to replace those eleven missing days. He meets a man dressed all in yellow who has recently regained his sight, a woman writing a book about James Wolfe, and he lives in a tent with a strange sort of guru who may or may not be helping him.

He unfolds for us his strange and co-dependent relationship with his mother, his intense friendships with the men he served with, and his very subdued love affair with his former fiancee. All while wandering through Montreal, wondering how it can still be so French when the English won the battle, and avoiding a visit to a certain Madam Blanchard. Surely, these are the ramblings of an insane man, right? There’s no way James Wolfe himself is spending September 2017 in Quebec.

The truth, while apparent throughout, is skillfully revealed and all possibilities are thrown into question. Wolfe (or Jimmy as he’s sometimes called) is an increasingly sympathetic character because whether he’s Wolfe come back to life or a mentally disturbed homeless man, Winter imbues him with glimmers of clarity and intelligence. Whatever has happened to him, this wasn’t always who he was and the reader longs for him to be restored to the life he should have had. After all, this is a book all about alternate realities.

While the story of Wolfe may be unfamiliar to non-Canadian readers, I think the story in and of itself here in Lost in September is strong enough to engage even those who might be new to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham or uninterested in history. Just be prepared, this book is so weird.

Book Review: All We Leave Behind by Carol Off

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

One of the signs of a compelling book for me is when I want to tell other people all about it. Or when I lay awake after reading it, thinking over various parts. All We Leave Behind did both.

Carol Off is a well-respected CBC journalist with a long career. (For those non-Canadians, that’s the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and it’s generally well regarded.) While reporting in Afghanistan in 2002, shortly after 9/11, Off interviewed an Afghan man named Asad who spoke out, on camera, about corruption and particularly against one of the warlords being enabled by US involvement. Because of Asad’s bold statements, made in hopes of change being possible in his country, his life and the lives of his family are eventually in danger and they are forced to flee Afghanistan.

Off begins the novel with an early experience as a reporter in Pakistan, one that taught her, Be careful what you wish for and reminds us that sometimes a journalist’s best story is the worst day of someone else’s life. It’s a strong way of establishing the conflict that many journalists feel. How do you report a story in a neutral manner? How do you stay objective in the face of suffering? And when do you get involved.

When Asad and his family escape Afghanistan and Off realizes that it was her reporting that put them in danger, she becomes involved in bringing them to Canada as refugees, crossing many professional boundaries but believing that it’s the right thing to do.

The book does a superb job of outlining Afghan history, both in a broad sense but also through focusing on Asad’s life and that of his family. We witness the changes the country goes through from the 1970s until present day and the influences of the rest of the world. Off provides the right amount of information so that someone relatively unfamiliar with Afghan history is able to follow along and I never felt lost or bogged down in the historical context. Off doesn’t spare feelings and doesn’t always shy away from naming names. She can be scathing in her denouncements of US involvement but she doesn’t let Canada off the hook either.

The second part of the book focuses on Asad’s struggle to first be recognized as a refugee and then to be accepted into Canada. Off definitely shows her political leanings here, outlining the ways that Harper’s Conservatives failed in a refugee crisis, as she details how Asad and his family struggled through the bureaucracy and redtape, floundering in the system for years while their lives were in danger. I get the sense that Carol Off and I are on similar sides of the political spectrum, so these strong opinions didn’t bother me but I imagine they may turn off some readers. (That said, if you know Off from her work with the CBC, you might not be surprised.)

As a Canadian, it was a harsh reminder that we are not always the peaceful, helpful nation we view ourselves as and that our hands have not remained clean in conflict worldwide. Even if our government tries to tell us we have. The book ends in late 2015 and it’s encouraging to think of how many Syrian refugees have been brought into Canada since then. At the same time, All We Leave Behind is a powerful lesson that many more are languishing in camps, turned back from safe borders, or perishing before they reach safety.

While this book will primarily be of interest to Canadians (and probably Canadians who find their ideals already align with Off’s), I think it would be a great read for anyone wanting to know more about either Middle East conflict or the experience of refugees. It’s well-written and informative and a topic that is only becoming more important in our current political climate worldwide.

Book Review: Wenjack by Joseph Boyden

Wenjack - Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Wenjack – Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Joseph Boyden is easily one of the best Canadian writers currently being published and I’m a big fan. His latest offering is much shorter than his three previous works – I read Wenjack in two sittings over a couple of days – but brings forth all his familiar talent.

What sets this brief story apart from Boyden’s previous work is that it is based on a true story. The story of residential schools and the snatching of First Nations children from their homes is perhaps the sorriest and most horrifying of Canadian history. In recent years, many survivors have come forward to speak about the abuse suffered at these schools. The effects are tragic and far-reaching. Unfortunately, this is hardly even history. Chanie Wenjack died in 1966. The last residential school closed in 1996.

Boyden brings this true story to life, gently and beautifully, in less than a hundred pages. The book alternates perspectives between Chanie and the spirits of the forest who follow him on his journey. The narrative voices are excellent – clearly and simply defined – and, as always, Boyden excels at description.

Obviously in such a short book there is a lot left out – and there’s much we’ll probably never know about Chanie’s life and death. But Wenjack is a powerful glimpse and a place to start for some who may not know much about this aspect of Canadian history.