Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.
It’s that time of year again! Canada’s national book competition, Canada Reads, is kicking off once more!
This year the theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes. The books that will be competing are:
And because I’m still working on becoming a better CanLit reader, I’ve only read one of the books this year: The Boat People by Sharon Bala.
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war reaches Canadian shores, the young father believes he and his six-year-old son can finally begin a new life. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist organization infamous for their suicide attacks. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.
The Boat People is told from alternating perspectives: Mahindan as he tries to figure out what is happening to him in this new country and worries over his son, who he has been separated from; his lawyer Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian who has never really been a part of Sri Lankan culture and must grapple with her identity and her role in Mahindan’s life; and Grace, the adjudicator, a third generation Japanese-Canadian whose family was interred during the war and stripped of everything they had worked to achieve, who must decide if Mahindan is a threat to the safety of her country, just like people decided her family was all those years ago.
The alternating perspectives provided a lot of layers to this story – Mahindan’s story is told from when he is in Canada but also what happened to him and others in Sri Lanka, that brought him here in the first place. Bala tells the story of Sri Lanka through Mahindan and Priya who learns about what happened to her own family that prompted them to escape to Canada.
But The Boat People can feel heavy handed with it’s message of inclusion and the duty to provide asylum and it’s mostly because of Grace. Grace has been appointed as an adjudicator by a former boss, a minister who is intent on kicking all of these people out of the country because they are probably terrorists. She is terrified of disappointing him and is infected by his xenophobic rhetoric. And as she continues to ignore her own family history, she is doomed to be the reason history is repeated.
There is a lot of complex history about Sri Lanka that Bala has no doubt simplified for her readers. And still I found it really overwhelming. The political history of that country is still something that I do not understand but Bala does do an admirable job of focusing those politics on the people they affected. In this way, Bala focuses on the human toll of political upheaval and forces readers to decide where the line is in offering asylum or shutting the door.
I think that The Boat People can be the kind of book a lot of people should read. It clearly did open my eyes to suffering in a part of the world I wasn’t paying attention to. But I’m not sure that this is the one book that will force the entire country to open their eyes and pay attention.
The competition starts on March 26 – tune in at cbc.ca!