cover image The Boat People

The Boat People

Sharon Bala. Doubleday, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-385-54229-6

A reckoning between Canada’s historic ideals and its contemporary politics is forced in this timely and engrossing debut novel based on the arrival of 500 refugees from war-torn Sri Lanka in 2010. After a voyage aboard a ship “groaning under the weight of too much human cargo,” Mahindan and his son land with their fellow fleeing Tamils near Vancouver, woefully unprepared for the trials that still await them. Grace has been appointed to arbitrate their fitness to enter the country by a politician who instructs her, “Canada has a reputation for being a soft touch.... We must disabuse the world of that notion.” The government’s attempt to cast the refugees as terrorists leads to protracted admissibility hearings, forcing Mahindan’s son into foster care and dimming his dreams of freedom. Skillfully braiding Grace’s and Mahindan’s perspectives, Bala manages wrings drama from the endless bureaucratic delays that make up the story. Hope only arrives once Grace’s mother begins sharing stories of their Japanese-Canadian family’s internment during World War II, leading Grace to reassess the ruthless approach expected of her; conversely, Bala’s gradual reveal of the nastiness Mahindan engaged in to escape Sri Lanka complicates his otherwise sympathetic portrayal. This is a powerful debut. (Jan.)