A thirty-five-year-old Sri Lankan refugee who has survived the harrowing experiences of civil war, a prison camp, and a perilous ocean voyage to Canada--but his journey has only begun, as he and his young son navigate the morass of the refugee system.
Inspired by true events, Sharon Bala’s multifaceted debut novel is not only about a group of 500 Sri Lankan refugees, the titular “boat people,” but also about the people they left behind and those who will decide their fates upon arriving in 2009 Vancouver ... Bala moves fluidly from past to present, mixing memories with current crises ... The Boat People reminds us of the fragile nature of truth.
Bala is particularly fond of the diminutive, the “small” of things, hands, wounded children — all designed to elicit sympathy. Stock characters crowd the narrative ... The author plays with time through flashbacks told in the present tense, an innovative approach well suited to capturing the upside-down nature of refugee narratives. With a treasure trove of material — what can’t a writer do with a boatload of refugees? — it is mystifying that Bala has chosen to ignore the obvious: letting us see the refugees as perfect in their imperfections rather than rendered as pawns in this political narrative, just as they were trapped in a war not of their choosing.
It might seem strange, initially, but sometimes the greatest clarity comes not from the news, but from fiction ... The Boat People succeeds not because it has answers, but because of how it foregrounds the questions: who are we as individuals? Who are we as a culture, as a society? How do our beliefs, our empathy, survive in the face of confusion and the threat of deception and violence? It may not be a perfect book, but The Boat People is a book perfect for our times, essential reading to bring context to questions which we are, perhaps, more inclined to ignore.