McClelland & Stewart, 2018
Reviewed by Erinn Sturgeon
The Boat People by Sharon Bala examines the ways in which a single act can connect and impact many people in various ways. Inspired by true events, the novel begins with a large boat containing 500 refugees from Sri Lanka landing illegally on the shores of Canada. While there had been rumours of this ship and the turmoil of war in Sri Lanka, the Canadian government was unprepared for such a large number of refugees, and thus had to figure out how to strike a balance between opening their arms to those in need and protecting their land from potential threat.
Mahindan arrives with his young son, Sellian. Bala was inspired by a real news article and a particular individual in it that stood out to her, who helped inspire the character of Mahindan. As a widower, Mahindan’s devotion to Sellian is heartwarming.
Grace and Priya, two Canadian women who are assigned to work with the refugees, as their lawyer and adjudicator respectively, are skeptical of their motives. These varied perspectives reinforces we are fundamentally the same, having the same basic wants and needs, despite our different homes and upbringings.
Bala doesn’t use quotation for dialogue and has a huge cast, but these are minor critiques in the face of the novel’s many strengths. Bala conveys the colourful nature and warmth of Sri Lanka, so starkly different from the cold and vast landscape of Canada. On the other hand, the war in Sri Lanka is described in dark, gruesome detail, making the destruction of the country even more heartbreaking.
Sharon Bala was born in Dubai but grew up in Canada, raised in Ontario and now living in St. John’s, Newfoundland with her husband. The Boat People is her debut novel, a finalist for Canada Reads 2018, and the 2018 Amazon Canada First Novel Award. The unpublished manuscript won the Percy Janes First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Fresh Fish Award, both in 2015. In 2017, Bala won the prestigious Journey Prize and had a second story long-listed in the anthology. A three-time recipient of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Arts and Letters Award, she has stories published in Hazlitt, Grain, Maisonneuve, The Dalhousie Review, Riddle Fence, Room, Prism International, The New Quarterly, and in an anthology called Racket: New Writing From Newfoundland (Breakwater Books, Fall 2015).