Book Review: The Boat People by Sharon Bala

Earlier on in the year I had read the buzz on twitter about The Boat People, a debut novel by Sharon Bala. As a result, when I saw the book on the shelf showcasing new books during a visit to my local library, I grabbed it and brought it home.

The fictitious story is based on a true event: the arrival of the ships Ocean Lady and Sun Sea on the coast of British Columbia in October 2009 and August 2010 carrying over 550 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. In the story The Boat People, 500 refugees arrive on the shores of British Columbia in a rusty cargo ship. Upon arrival the longed-for freedom is not given to the people seeking refuge and they are instead thrown into prison. The reader follows the experience of Mahindan, a father who has fled Sri Lanka with his six year old son. We read about his experience as a person wishing for refugee status in Canada, and we read about his experience in war-torn Sri Lanka. As the investigation of his claim mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka will jeopardise his and his son’s chances for asylum.

The story is told through the voice of Mahindan, his lawyer Priya, and Grace, a third generation Japanese-Canadian who must decide Mahindan’s fate. Through these three different voices, Bala tells her story with compassion. The reader feels the emotions of Mahindan – his fears and his frustrations as he waits for months in the prison for his fate to be decided. At the beginning of the novel, I felt annoyance at Grace’s lack of understanding and compassion for the refugees’ desperate action to take a chance to enter Canada illegally. And then I came to understand that Bala deliberately makes us feel this way in order to highlight how easy it must have been for people to make assumptions about the refugees from the comfort and security of their lives in Canada.

This novel describes an issue that is relevant to readers today: there are so many people seeking refuge from wars and fear for their lives. The Boat People not only gives us insight into the refugee experience, but also into the decision-making process of who gets to stay and who is deported. I found myself shaking my head so often while reading this story; and feeling for the people who are forced to flee their homes and their countries. Reading this novel has added to my understanding of the refugee experience on both sides – the side of the refugee as well as that  of the country determining whether or not to give asylum.

The Boat People is not a lighthearted read for a breezy sun-filled afternoon. Instead it is one that will touch your emotions and cause you to think about the refugee crisis, the desperation of those seeking asylum, and the angst caused in those people who need to determine the fate of those seeking asylum. Sharon Bala’s book is well worth picking up.

I give this novel ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 stars.

Have you read any books on refugees? What was the title of the book?

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2018

(This novel was the 39th in my 50 book pledge for 2018)

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Boat People by Sharon Bala

  1. It’s hard to imagine ourselves so desperate or in anything like those circumstances, isn’t it, Colline? And I find I sometimes switch channels on the TV because I can’t bear to watch this distress, but it is a very real situation in our world right now, and there are no easy answers. I willl read this if I come across it.


    1. It is beautifully written Jo. The writing does touch your heartstrings and yet doesn’t make you feel guilty for the life you lead in a first world country. Instead it makes you feel grateful.

      Liked by 1 person

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