Monday, March 12, 2018

The Boat People

Title:  The Boat People
Author:  Sharon Bala
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0385542291 / 978-0385542296

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes."

Favorite Quote:  "You have come to a good place. There is room for you here."

Civil war in Sri Lanka turned thousands into refugees. Fiction such as The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam and Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera described this harrowing war and reinforce the fact that in war, the victims are on all sides.

This book picks up on an actual historical event that resulted from the Sri Lankan civil war. In August, 2010, the Thai cargo ship MV Sun Sea brought almost five hundred Sri Lankan refugees to British Columbia, Canada. The ship had been tracked since June and was finally intercepted by Canadian authorities. The refugees were placed in a detention facility, and a lengthy process began to determine admissibility into Canada. The arguments waged on all sides. These were families seeking to escape violence and destruction; these were insurgent seeking to bring illicit activities and instability into Canada. Both arguments likely had merit depending on the case. The question was how to separate one from the other. Two years passed. The majority of the refugees were released; some were deported. Some investigations continued.

This book brings to life this heated conversation through fiction. If I have one criticism, it is that the book tries too hard to cover every angle of this refugee conversation:
  • Refugees who face "exhaustion where he thought of the future; terror when he remembered the past"
  • Attorneys and organizations who work to provide help
  • Politicians on either side of the conversation - "Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion." versus "... a brown man with a beard begging for asylum? ... Not on my watch."
  • Immigrants - "third-culture people who slipped in and out of identities like shoes" - who are completely a part of their adopted homeland and yet straddle between the culture they call home and the culture they call heritage
  • Immigrants who are completely a part of their adopted homeland and find no immediate connection with the people or culture of their heritage
  • Survivors of the Japanese internment during World War II to draw a comparison between the two situations (This is the piece that feels like a stretch to include in this story.)
The book does, however, successfully bring to life the hopes and the fears on all sides. The most emotional of the stories is that of Mahindan and his young son. Mahindan is one of the refugees. He lost his wife in childbirth; he makes this journey with his young son. At the detention center, he is separated from his son for the men's accommodations provide no place for children.

Mahidan's story is of the refugees hearings in Canada. Chapters also reach back into the past to his childhood, his loving marriage, the losses he faced, and the impossible decisions he made to get to this point. "Did she now know what it was like to have so little agency? To be faced with such cruel options it was as if there was no choice at all?"

The difficult but very real thing about this book is that it gives no answers and no absolutes.
Even the ending is not neatly wrapped into a package. I actually turned the page looking for more and am surprise when there is not. As a reader of fiction, I want an ending. In this book, for some, there is an ending. For some, there is a beginning. For some, there is neither; the story seems to stop in the middle of their journey. However, that is the reality of this very emotional situation. There are no easy answers, only a hope for peace and compassion and an appreciation for any meaningful effort to keep the conversation going.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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