The Boat People tells the story of how a boat with five hundred Sri Lankan asylum seekers docks in Vancouver illegally. The group are faced with allegations of terrorism and are forced to be detained and separated from their loved ones. Potentially a threat to Canadian security, the refugees are forced to undertake trial after trial. Despite being able to prove his identity, Mahindan faces interrogations from the Canadian authorities, who are attempting to prove that there are members of an extremist Sri Lankan radical group onboard.
The novel follows the lives of several character perspectives: Mahindan and his son Sellian, the refugee’s lawyer, a third-generation Japanese/Canadian called Grace, and a second-generation Sri Lankan/Canadian called Priya.
By following the stories of such different characters, the reader is able to gain a thorough understanding of what it must feel like to be a refugee entering a strange land (and a perspective of the land they left behind), along with the legal processes which take months. Riddled with horrifying truths, The Boat People forces the reader to acknowledge the trauma that refugees face, and the hard-work which dedicated lawyers and volunteers embark on to secure their freedom.
Bala’s writing paints an extraordinarily vivid cinematic picture of each aspect of the story. You can smell the spices of Sri Lanka and feel the heat of the sun; the claustrophobia of the boat, and the rocking of the rusty railings on the waves; the stark prison cells where the only colour is the green of the inmates’ jumpers. Bala creates such a stark insight into this world that so many in the public hear about, but not many have experienced themselves, and by doing so, Bala has constructed a novel which is sure to punch you in the heart.
The refugee crisis is a huge topic of conversation in both Australia and Europe, so this novel has been released at an extremely important time. Hopefully the depth of the characters’ stories, and their display of strength, will make society more aware of the horrors people are fleeing, and how badly refugees are wanting to survive.
Reviewed by Phoebe Christofi
Rating out of 10: 8
Distributed by: Penguin Random House Australia
Released: April 2018
RRP: $45 hardback, $29.99 trade paperback