When a ship with some five hundred refugees from Sri Lanka arrives in Vancouver seeking asylum, it sparks political controversy and fear. Rather than being welcomed, they are thrown into detention centers while Canada decides what to do with them. This is complicated by allegations that at least some of the refugees are terrorists.

The Boat People explores the process of reviewing and deciding just who can and cannot enter Canada from the point of view of three people who are all new to the process, Mahindan, a refugee; Priay, his lawyer; and Grace, the adjudicator who will ultimately decide his fate. This is the first time for all of them, so all of them are learning the ropes and learning how justice can be hard to find.

Mahindan is a single father whose son lives with a foster family while he remains in detention. With his wife dead and his village bombed, he fled with his son and joined the refugees on the cargo ship. He was a mechanic and did his best to avoid involuntary drafting into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). By doing occasional vehicle repair, he stayed out of the LTTE, however, one of the vehicles he worked on was used in a terrorist attack. Does this make him complicit?

Priya is a Sri Lankan woman, a new lawyer, whose firm assigned her to work with the refugees even though she has no interest in refugee law. She feels that if she were not Sri Lankan, she would never have been given this assignment. So she begins with feelings of resentment and distances herself from the refugees. After all, she is Canadian. However, as she learns more about what the refugees have gone through and what her own family endured, she becomes an advocate in more than her job description.

Grace is a woman who attached her career to a conservative politician, rising with him as his career advanced. He is a nativist who fear-mongers shamelessly. He appoints Grace to this position as an adjudicator even though she has no experience or qualifications certain she will do his bidding. Meanwhile, her grandmother is slipping into Alzheimer’s forgetfulness while also reliving her anger at being interned during World War II and losing the family business. Grace’s children are learning from her grandmother and pointing out parallels between the Japanese of then to the Tamil of today, comparisons Grace does not want to hear.

The Boat People speaks to contemporary events effectively and captures the complexity of immigration politics. Yet, somehow I found it less compelling than expected. Personally, I think we accept far too few refugees and am appalled by political fear-mongering about immigrants and refugees. But in some ways, this felt a bit contrived. For example, within three pages of meeting Priya, I knew how her story would be about changing her attitude. It is a trite story, the lawyer assigned to an emotional case who is changed by it from indifference to advocacy and activism. Of course, it’s commonplace because it really happens, but still, feeling like I know the way the story would go so soon into the story is disappointing, especially when I don’t get surprised along the way.

Mahindan’s story appealed to me the most. It gets at the truth of being a refugee. People don’t do it lightly. Life must become insupportable before they take such an uncertain risk. Warsan Shire wrote, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Bala paints the mouth of the shark and it’s scary, dangerous, and deadly.

Grace is less appealing, yet she is perhaps the one who is asked to make the greatest transformation–that is if she does. How the story resolves is up to the reader, after all. Will we believe Grace transcends her fears or will we decide she is too dependent on her patron to ever be her own woman? It depends on what we make of her.

I received an e-galley of The Boat People from the publisher through NetGalley.

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