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The Boat People
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The Boat People
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By the winner of The Journey Prize, and inspired by a real incident, The Boat People is a gripping and morally complex novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage to reach...
By the winner of The Journey Prize, and inspired by a real incident, The Boat People is a gripping and morally complex novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage to reach...
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  • By the winner of The Journey Prize, and inspired by a real incident, The Boat People is a gripping and morally complex novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage to reach Canada – only to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism in their new land.

    When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees reaches the shores of British Columbia, the young father is overcome with relief: he and his six-year-old son can finally put Sri Lanka's bloody civil war behind them and begin new lives. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the "boat people" are members of a terrorist militia. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son's chances for asylum.
    Told through the alternating perspectives of Mahindan; his lawyer Priya, who reluctantly represents the migrants; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who must decide Mahindan's fate, The Boat People is a high-stakes novel that offers a deeply compassionate lens through which to view the current refugee crisis. Inspired by real events, with vivid scenes that move between the eerie beauty of northern Sri Lanka and combative refugee hearings in Vancouver, where life and death decisions are made, Sharon Bala's stunning debut is an unforgettable and necessary story for our times.

Excerpts-

  • From the cover
    Beginning
    July 2009

    Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes. He heard the whistle and thud of falling artillery, the cries of the dying. Mortar shells and rockets, the whole world on fire.
    Then another sound. It cut through the clamour so that for a drawn-out second there was nothing else, only him and his son and the bomb that arched through the sky with a shrill banshee scream, spinning nose aimed straight for them. Mahindan fought to open his eyes. His limbs were pinned down and heavy. He struggled to move, to call out in terror, to clamber and run. The ground rumbled. The shell exploded, shards of hot metal spitting in its wake. The tent was rent in half. Mahindan jolted awake.
    Heart like a sledgehammer, he sat up frantic, blinking into the darkness. He heard someone panting and long seconds later realized it was him. The echoing whine of flying shrapnel faded and he returned to the present, to the coir mat under him, back to the hold of the ship.
    There were snores and snuffles, the small nocturnal noises of five hundred slumbering bodies. Beneath him, the engine's monotonous whir. He reached out, instinctive, felt his son Sellian curled up beside him, then lay down again. The back of his neck was damp.
    His pulse still raced. He smelled the sourness of his skin, the raw animal stink of the bodies all around. The man on the next mat slept with his mouth open. His snore was a revving motorcycle, so close Mahindan could almost feel the warm exhales.
    He put his hand against Sellian's back, felt it move up and down. Gradually, his own breathing slowed to the same rhythm. He ran a hand through his son's hair, fine and silky, the soft strands of a child, then stroked his arm, felt the roughness of his skin, the long, thin scratches, the scabbed-over insect bites. Sellian was slight. Six years old and barely three feet tall. How little space the child occupied, coiled into himself, his thumb in his mouth. How precarious his existence, how miraculous his survival.
    Mahindan's vision adjusted and shapes emerged out of the gloom. The thin rails on either side of the ladder. Lamps strung up along an electrical cord. Outside the porthole window, it was still pitch-black.
    Careful not to wake Sellian, he stood and gingerly made his way across the width of the ship toward the ladder, stepping between bodies huddled on thin mats and ducking under sleepers swaying overhead, cocooned in rope hammocks. It was hot and close, the atmosphere suffocating.
    Hema's thick plait trailed out on the dirty floor. Mahindan stooped to pick it up and laid it gently on her back as he passed by. Her two daughters shared the mat beside her; they lay on their sides facing each other, knees and foreheads touching. A few feet on, he passed the man with the amputated leg and averted his gaze.
    During the day the ship was rowdy with voices, but now he heard only the slap of the electrical cord against the wall, everyone breathing in and out, recycling the same stale, diesel-scented air.
    A boy cried out in his sleep, caught in a nightmare, and when Mahindan turned toward the sound, he saw Kumuran's wife comfort her son. With both hands grasping the banisters, Mahindan hoisted himself up the ladder. Emerging onto the deck, inhaling the fresh scent of salt and sea, he felt immediately lighter. From overhead, the mast creaked and he gazed up to see the stars, the half-appam moon glowing alive in the sky. At the thought of appam – doughy, hot off the fire – his stomach gave a plaintive, hollow grumble.
    It was dark, but he knew his way...

About the Author-

  • Sharon Bala lives in St. John's where she is a member of The Port Authority writing group. Her short story "Butter Tea at Starbucks" won the prestigious Writers' Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize in 2017. The Boat People is her first novel. Please visit SharonBala.com.
    Athena Karkanis is currently working on the 6th and final season of House of Cards. She was recently seen (concealing her pregnancy) as the villain on the third and final season of CBS's Zoo. Athena is known for her role as Dani Khalil opposite Mark Strong and Lennie James on AMC's acclaimed series Low Winter Sun. She can also be seen on Suits, The Expanse, The Lottery, The Border, Murdoch Mysteries, Ransom, in three of the Saw movies and more. Her voice can be heard on dozens of cartoons, video games.

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 13, 2017
    A reckoning between Canada’s historic ideals and its contemporary politics is forced in this timely and engrossing debut novel based on the arrival of 500 refugees from war-torn Sri Lanka in 2010. After a voyage aboard a ship “groaning under the weight of too much human cargo,” Mahindan and his son land with their fellow fleeing Tamils near Vancouver, woefully unprepared for the trials that still await them. Grace has been appointed to arbitrate their fitness to enter the country by a politician who instructs her, “Canada has a reputation
    for being a soft touch.... We must disabuse the world of that notion.” The government’s attempt to cast the refugees as terrorists leads to protracted admissibility hearings, forcing Mahindan’s son into foster care and dimming his dreams of freedom. Skillfully braiding Grace’s and Mahindan’s perspectives, Bala manages wrings drama from the endless bureaucratic delays that make up the story. Hope only arrives once Grace’s mother begins sharing stories of their Japanese-Canadian family’s internment during World War II, leading Grace to reassess the ruthless approach expected of her; conversely, Bala’s gradual reveal of the nastiness Mahindan engaged in to escape Sri Lanka complicates his otherwise sympathetic portrayal. This is a powerful debut.

  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2018

    In Canadian novelist Bala's debut, a 60-meter freighter reaches British Columbia in 2009, carrying 500 survivors of Sri Lanka's brutal civil war. The arrivals are herded into detention centers by a government fearful of terrorists hidden among these "boat people." Mahindran and his six-year-old son Sellian are among the asylum seekers assigned to legal counsel Priya Rajakaran, whose initially reluctant involvement inspires interest in her own family's Sri Lankan immigration. Adjudicator Grace Nakamura, whose grandparents and mother spent World War II imprisoned solely because of their Japanese ancestry, will determine Mahindran's future. Seamlessly navigating three separate backstories, Athena Karkanis proves herself a remarkable narrator, adeptly portraying the personalities of a sprawling cast, including Sellian's tantrums, Priya's uncle's confessions, Grace's mother's dementia-strangled demands, and many more. VERDICT Inspired by the real-life 2009-10 arrival of 550 Tamil refugees on two ships in British Columbia, Bala bestows unforgettable individual identities onto urgent headlines that Karkanis then embodies with exceptional fluency and ease. ["By empathetically exploring each character's backstory, Bala presents the complex task of balancing a nation's desire to be compassionate with the need to identify threats to national security, providing a timely examination of the refugee crisis worldwide": LJ 2/1/18 review of the Doubleday hc.]--Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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