A real ship of refugees inspires a novel about the messy consequences of war.
In 2010, Canadian authorities intercepted a rusty Thai freighter carrying 492 refugees from war-ravaged Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island once called Ceylon, off the tip of India. The headlines inspired Bala to write and launch her first novel as books about migrants are at flood tide. This one toggles between Sri Lankan flashbacks and Vancouver, British Columbia, where the passengers come ashore, mistaking the helicopter and Canadian ships for a welcome party. Instead, they're all sent into detention, where many remain through these pages. Mahindan, a minority Tamil mechanic, and his small son are assigned to a well-meaning, alcoholic lawyer and his law student sidekick, Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan–Canadian pining to do corporate work: “The pungent combination of chili powder, body odour, and urine that wafted ahead of them made Priya hold her breath,” Bala writes. This is never a subtle book. It also features political appointee Grace Nakamura, a Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who, by the last page, has yet to rule on Mahindan’s status. Grace’s mother endured a World War II internment camp, setting up the elder woman’s fixation on the property the family lost. Bala’s writing is generally crisp, with occasional glints of humor. The short, unnumbered chapters march briskly; the dialogue lacks quotation marks. Each chapter heading—“Go Home Terorists!” (the misspelling is intentional); “Welcome to Winter”; “Enemy Aliens”; “Judge, Jury, and Executioner”—is plucked from the text. This first book has a workshopped feel as well as a few memorable passages: Mahindan’s first encounter with a Western shower, the rhythms of a recycled family joke, a chilling scene of United Nations withdrawal. But compared to nuanced recent literature set amid Sri Lankan strife—On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman or The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam—this is thin fare.
A strong premise runs aground trying to form a set of convictions into a novel.