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In 2010, the MV Sun Sea carrying 492 Sri Lankans arrived in Canada but its passengers did not receive a warm welcome from the Harper government.

The Boat People
Sharon Bala
McLelland & Stewart

In the summer of 2010, a cargo ship carrying 492 Sri Lankans seeking refuge from civil-war violence was intercepted by Canadian authorities near the coast of British Columbia. The vast majority on the ship were men, but there were also more than a hundred women and children on board. Stephen Harper demanded a hard line be drawn: This was Canada's chance to show the world we weren't a soft touch on immigration after all. Connections, still ambiguous to this day, were made between the passengers and a militant Tamil organization. The adults on the ship were transferred to detention facilities and the children and their mothers (if the mothers had survived) were taken to low-risk facilities. Those on board the MV Sun Sea had travelled for three months but their journey had just begun – and it was going to be one rife with bureaucratic slowdowns and fear on both sides.

This news story provided the inspiration for Newfoundland-based author Sharon Bala's debut novel, The Boat People. The narrative is divided between Vancouver in the present and Sri Lanka in recollections, and shared by Tamil mechanic Mahindan, a widower who arrives with his young son; articling lawyer Priya, who is assigned to the case by her hard-drinking boss because she's second-generation Sri Lankan, but disappoints when it turns out she knows just a handful of Tamil phrases; and Japanese-Canadian Grace, the government-appointed adjudicator who is to rule on Mahindan's refugee claim.

The real-life migrants on the MV Sun Sea are said to have mistaken the ships and aircraft that met them off the coast of B.C. as some sort of welcoming committee. Bala displays her talent as a compassionate, reflective author early when she conveys this heartbreaking and absurd misunderstanding in two ways, through her characters. Priya is told an anecdote by her new boss, Gigovaz, about his first refugee client, a Rohingya refugee, and it's a story she clearly believes will provide her with some much-needed bolstering. The client was missing a hand and had cigarette burns all over his chest, Gigovaz tells her. She asks him what happened. "His claim was denied. They sent him back."

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Meanwhile, Mahindan has come ashore and his first moments in Canada are filled with relief, then crawling trepidation. He gives up his suitcase to the guard who demands it, then gazes "at the battered old suitcase with regret.

Hard-shelled and sturdy with brass locks and snaps, it and the meagre trinkets inside – a wedding album, Chithra's death certificate, the keys to his house and garage – were all that remained of his worldly possessions. But he reminded himself he had something more precious. Safety. Here it was possible to breathe."

Of course, this does not prove to be true – not for Mahindran, who is handcuffed and separated from his beloved son, and likely not for anyone who must leave home behind and travel here, or anywhere, seeking safe harbour. It's a trite saying, home is where the heart is – and yet as Bala takes the reader back to Sri Lanka and details every step that led the migrants onto the ship, the civil-war violence recedes and a true home with a beating heart is revealed. I couldn't imagine leaving all that behind, especially in ruins. This is a work of fiction, but it's so very real.

As the novel progresses, Bala carefully replaces the reader's instinctive sympathy with much more challenging ambivalence. The initial impressions of Mahindan as an innocent seeking refuge do not present the entire picture; the steps he had to take to get himself and his son on the migrant ship were not pleasant. Nor are the biases, complacency, obstacles and frustration the lawyers and adjudicators experience and face. Ultimately, this is a novel comprised of both beautiful and uncomfortable truths, written by an author who understands there are multiple sides to every issue – and to every human being.

The constructs of Grace's arc are heavy at times. Her mother's Alzheimer's-induced recollections of her experiences during Japanese internment less than a century ago, when her family was stripped of their property and their human rights on Canadian soil, is an understandable choice as it relates to an argument about this country's treatment of immigrants and refugees, but is too convenient as a plot device, especially coming on just as Grace, who was initially focused on the conjecture about the migrants' potential militant group ties, becomes involved with the case. This is an example of a moment when Bala's narrative bears the heavy and self-imposed burden of pulling harsh truths into the light.

At a different moment in history, I may have seen that as more of an encumbrance. But every novel I've read recently has touched in some way on current events. The novel I'm writing now has social justice running through some of its veins. There are big problems in this world and, at the moment, almost no place to escape from them – not even fiction, and perhaps especially not. Fiction has proven itself to be prescient, time and time again. Now we're consistently exploring tough issues within the pages of novels, and I have to believe the freedom of thought this affords – as well as the potential for deep, private contemplation – is going to be one of the ways forward.

Bala has vividly conjured worlds, both on Canadian soil and back in Sri Lanka, that show the dualities of living in any country – and that show how powerful the need for safety, the need for home, is in all of us. The characters Bala brings together in The Boat People are different and the same. They all want one thing: to be able to breathe. What we also get from a novel like this is a new way of seeing.

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Marissa Stapley's second novel, Things to Do When It's Raining, will be released by Simon & Schuster Canada on Feb. 6.

Funding for school libraries in Canada is woefully inadequate and children at high-needs elementary schools are paying the price. Read Between the Lines, a documentary produced by the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, captures the importance of early literacy and the challenges we face in Canada by underfunding school libraries.
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