The repercussions of war and a new perspective on refugees in Sharon Bala’s The Boat People.

 ‘The Boat People‘ by Sharon Bala will change the way you view refugees.

The Boat People tells the story of a large group of refugees who arrive Canada from war ravaged Sri Lanka with hopes of a better life. However, their dream is interrupted because instead of acceptance, the Canadian government is riddled with suspicions of terrorism. The story is told from the perspectives of refugee Mahindan, his second gen. Sri Lankan Canadian lawyer, Priya and a Japanese Canadian adjudicator, Grace.

The Boat People Sharon Bala

“In Sri Lanka, there were many ways to make a bad death”

War is always damaging to everyone who has to live through it and The Boat People underscores this fact. The novel opens with Mahindan on a boat with his six year old son Sellian. Nevertheless, as the story progresses we also get a glimpse of Mahindan‘s life in Sri Lanka. Bala’s novel focuses on the last seven years of the Sri Lankan civil war and despite periods of intermittent respite, the experience is traumatic.

Reading this book was quite the education for me because I knew nothing of Sri Lanka prior to reading. So, while I read this, I also researched the Tamils and the Sinhalese. There’s truly no more enjoyable way for me to learn about history than reading great stories. Yet, I really liked that The Boat People is not just a history of war, but also of lives. Mahindan and his wife Chithra visit markets together and enjoy meals with friends regardless of the steady hum of war in the background.

@doubledaybooks The Boat People is not just a history of war, but also of lives. Click To Tweet

“Who’s a bonafide refugee?”

Immigrating is hard, but declaring asylum is even harder nowadays. The refugees have to convince the government that their lives were actually in danger in their home country. The process is arduous and draining mentally and emotionally. In The Boat People, a major concern of the government is that some of the refugees may be terrorists. Bala is slow, precise in her exploration of both sides of the case. So, we hear from Mahindan‘s lawyer Priya and also his adjudicator Grace, who is torn between submitting to fear of the threat of terrorism or showing compassion.

People lie and so it is hard to completely write off the cautious stance most governments are taking toward immigration, yet, so many people NEED asylum. It’s a tight spot and The Boat People tests your empathy. Another issue highlighted in the novel is that many first world countries simply cannot comprehend the scope and effects of war. The hunger, the fear, the uncertainty, the desperation to live, to protect your children. According to Mahindan‘s lawyer Gigovaz

‘[the refugees] have come to a place where the people are spoiled… It is easier to call [them] liars that believe what [they] say is true.’

Who's a bonafide refugee?- Sharon Bala's debut novel will change your perspective on refugees. Click To Tweet

“There is a future for you here”

The immigrant experience is unique. Parents tirelessly work odd jobs and children become proficient at a language their parents barely understand. The perspectives of Grace and Priya relay what it means to be a child of immigrants. The Boat People highlights the importance of knowing where we come from and how we’ve gotten where we are. From Grace and Priya, we learn that knowing where we come from reminds us to be compassionate to the suffering of others.

For the refugees, immigrating means leaving behind homes, extended family and for Mahindan, being separated from his son. Still, they hold on to hope of a better future outside Sri Lanka.

“Hope was a dangerous thing to lose”

What I liked

I think what I enjoyed the most was how much of an eye-opener this book was for me respecting immigration laws, refugees and Sri Lanka. Sharon Bala’s writing is also enjoyable, because although the book veered into legal territory occasionally, I still found it engrossing. If you enjoyed Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun, you should read The Boat People.

If you enjoyed Adichie's Half Of A Yellow Sun, you should read this book!. Click To Tweet

The Boat People provides ample opportunity to empathize with individuals from war torn parts of the world. It begs for a more compassionate treatment of refugees.With well formed, nuanced characters and obviously properly researched material, Bala’s debut is quiet, timely and assured.

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Sharon Bala's The Boat People is quiet, timely and assured. Click To Tweet

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

*A copy of The Boat People was provided via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are mine.

Looking for more book recommendations? See my review of Naima Coster’s Halsey Street.