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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What I Read – April 2018

READ:

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains – Yasuko Thanh (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

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I went to school with Suko and so was familiar with her unique style and had an idea of where her interests lie. This historical novel set in Vietnam lined up with my expectations and I love her short stories (Her collection Floating Like the Dead is great) but I struggled with this one a bit. It came together in the end for me but took me a while to get oriented.

Funny Once – Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury, 2014)

These short stories were great but it took me so long to read them that I think a lot of the impact was lost on me. The fault was my own – I borrowed this as an online resource from the library and so read it on my laptop. And reading books electronically just does not work for me. Turns out I’m kind of old-fashioned when it comes to books.

When I was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson (Picador, 2012)

Overall, I enjoyed this essay collection. I really like Robinson’s writing and I agree with her on a lot of theological and political questions. However, some of these essays felt really American and so I had trouble staying interested. They also felt overly optimistic about America, which made me realize how much the world has changed since 2012.

The great narrative, to which we as Christians are called to be faithful, begins at the beginning of all things and ends at the end of all things, and within the arc of it civilizations blossom and flourish, wither and perish. This would seems a great extravagance, all the beautiful children of earth lying down in a final darkness. But no, there is that wondrous love to assure us that the world is more precious than we can possibly imagine.

  • Marilynne Robinson, “Wondrous Love”

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Hilary Mantel (HarpeCollins Publisher, 2014)

I found myself much more engaged by this collection of short stories. This was my first read by Mantel and although I enjoyed it I still don’t feel the need to read any of her novels. The title story of this collection did force me to do some reading up on Margaret Thatcher though, since I knew shockingly little.

Brother – David Chariandy (McClelland & Stewart, 2017)

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Loved this book. Read my full review here.

All around us in the Park were mothers who had journeyed far beyond what they knew, who dreamed of raising children who might have just a little more than they did, children who might reward sacrifice and redeem a past. And there were victories, you must know. Fears were banished by the scents from simmering pots, denigration countered by freshly laundered tablecloth. History beaten back by the provision of clothes and yearly school supplies.

  • David Chariandy, Brother

Black Swan Green – David Mitchell (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006)

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I reviewed this one too! Maybe I’m on a roll! Check back on Wednesday for the review.

If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, “When you’re ready.”

  • David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Didn’t Finish:

White Cat – Holly Black

Someone raved about this book to me once and so I’ve long had it on my list and finally got a copy of it. As soon as I picked it up at the library I knew it wasn’t my normal fare. I don’t read a lot fantasy but wanted to give it a fair go. I think I got about halfway through. I can see why a fantasy reader would love it but it’s not for me. (I also, in general, hate book series and that biased me against it further.)

Currently Reading:

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

The Redress of Poetry – Seamus Heaney

[Poetry] becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way.

  • Seamus Heaney, “The Redress of Poetry”

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The Boat People – Sharon Bala