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Digital Subscriptions > Quill & Quire > March 2018 > In the same boat

In the same boat

Sharon Bala’s debut novel addresses thorny questions about multiculturalism, empathy, and power


The Boat People

Sharon Bala

McClelland & Stewart

“Exhaustion wheneveR he t hought of t he future; terror when he remembered the past.”That is the dark introduction to Mahindan, the protagonist of Sharon Bala’s debut novel. Along with nearly 500 other Sri Lankan refugees, Mahindan lies on board the deck of a rusted cargo ship making its way toward Canadian shores. He spends the rest of the novel in a prison, separated from his six-year-old son, Sellian, waiting for bureaucratic meetings and legalities to advance as “the roll call of the dead”– his wife, her parents, and assorted friends – plays in his mind.

Bala constructs a deliberately multidimensional examination of the long process of detention reviews and admissibility hearings required to become an official refugee in Canada. Before the reader is told what horrors Mahindan endured, in what context, and how he survived, the novel’s other voices are already speaking, their interpretations and apprehensions of the refugee ship overlapping his experience. One of these voices belongs to Priya, an articling student at the law firm of Elliot, McFadden, and Lo. Priya begrudgingly accepts the work handed off to her by slovenly immigration lawyer Gigovaz when he learns that she’s a second-generation Sri Lankan. Another voice belongs to Grace Nakamura – she, too, is new at her job as an adjudicator with the Immigration and Refugee Board, where she must resolve the crucial hearings that decide the fate of each Tamil passenger.

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