Two pieces of Canadian history lie behind Sharon Bala’s debut novel, “The Boat People.” The first involves the arrival — in August 2010 — of the merchant vessel Sun Sea at Equimalt naval base in British Columbia, carrying hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers.
The second involves the internment of almost 24,000 Canadian citizens of Japanese origin in the Slocan Valley by the British Columbia Security Commission between 1941 and 1949.
The arrival of the refugees is fictionalized through the voices of the widower Mahindan, a resourceful father rendered unscrupulous by the circumstances of a terrible war, who has arrived with his 6-year-old son, Sellian, and Priya Rajasekaran, a law student assigned to represent the refugees. Grace Nakamura, an adjudicator for the Immigration and Refugee Board, provides the connection to 1941 through her mother, Kumi. The latter, her mind laced with dementia, sallies forth like a Greek chorus to insist that subjecting foreign asylum seekers to the processes established by rule of law is the same as the forced removal and incarceration of law-abiding citizens. It’s a false equivalence that blights a novel already struggling under the weight of political opinion: Balas vilifies the Canadian Border Services Agency and the draconian immigration laws and penalties that can be traced to the prime minister at the time, Stephen Harper, and sings the praises of the Canadian Tamil Congress, an organization designated as a terrorist group by the United Nations Security Council that appears here as the Tamil Alliance.
The “compassionate” lens promised on the jacket copy proves elusive. The novel is burdened by a heavy-handed use of emotive prose. Bala is particularly fond of the diminutive, the “small” of things, hands, wounded children — all designed to elicit sympathy. Stock characters crowd the narrative. One of them, Grace’s world-weary colleague Mitchell Hurst, shows up no fewer than four times to make declarative statements about what a neophyte she is at this business of adjudicating asylum. Bala also labors to explain things that do not require explanation, from immigration law (“there can be a gap between policy and practice”) to Border Services (“the agency responsible for patrolling the perimeter, the country’s official boundaries”).
Less than 10 pages into this novel, a lawyer says: “The truth is immaterial. … Do the claimants appear to be telling the truth? That is what matters.” His words are echoed by Mahindan toward the end of the book: “What is important is not what is true or false. The important thing is what these people, the Canadian authorities, believe is true and false.” It’s an interesting premise that, if allowed to float, might have permitted the novel to reach safe harbor. Instead, Bala frog-marches readers toward a foregone conclusion: The government is vindictive; the refugees, innocent.
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. There is one character, Mahindan’s champion bargainer of a wife, Chithra, who in flashbacks lights up the page with her presence and prescience, the energy she brings to her marriage, her friendships and her pregnancy. One is left wishing Chithra had made it to Canada. Her youthful vitality and fierce personality would have helped the author dispense with a multitude of middling characters and political invective and given us a heroine worth cheering for.
- Newyork Times