The Boat People

The Boat People

A Novel

Book - 2018
Average Rating:
Rate this:
"For readers of Khaled Hosseini and Chris Cleave, The Boat People is an extraordinary novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage only to face the threat of deportation amid accusations of terrorism When a rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees from Sri Lanka's bloody civil war reaches Vancouver's shores, the young father thinks he and his six-year-old son can finally start a new life. Instead, the group is thrown into a detention processing center, with government officials and news headlines speculating that among the "boat people" are members of a separatist militant organization responsible for countless suicide attacks--and that these terrorists now pose a threat to Canada's national security. As the refugees become subject to heavy interrogation, Mahindan begins to fear that a desperate act taken in Sri Lanka to fund their escape may now jeopardize his and his son's chance for asylum. Told through the alternating perspectives of Mahindan; his lawyer, Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan Canadian who reluctantly represents the refugees; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese Canadian adjudicator who must decide Mahindan's fate as evidence mounts against him, The Boat People is a spellbinding and timely novel that provokes a deeply compassionate lens through which to view the current refugee crisis"--
Publisher: New York :, Doubleday,, [2018]
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780385542296
Branch Call Number: FIC BALA
Characteristics: 338 pages ; 25 cm


From Library Staff

Also available in eBook format

From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Apr 30, 2020

I was looking forward to reading The Boat People for my 2020 reading challenge in the category of a book about an immigrant, refugee or newcomer. Although the story has a lot of potential, especially the interesting layering of different waves of refugee claimants, it is very one-sided and lacks complexity.

In addition, although Bala writes in the Author’s Note that Fred Blair is “a wholly fictional character,” it is difficult not to draw parallels to Frederick Charles Blair, Director of the Immigration Branch, Department of Mines and Resources, from 1936 to 1943. Blair was known for developing and enforcing anti-Semitic immigration policies, and was notably involved in Canada’s refusal to allow the MS St. Louis, carrying over 900 Jewish people, to dock in Halifax in 1939.

Although the themes in the stories are complex and tragic, the writing lacks proficiency and finesse. I felt I was reading a script for a graphic novel. The book may have been intended for grade 8 reading level. While it is useful to expose us to this difficult subject, based on the inexpert writing I would not recommend this book to someone who expects well crafted writing to go along with an interesting story line.

Oct 30, 2019

A boatload of asylum seekers—ethnic minority Tamil people from a Sri Lankan civil war—arrive in Vancouver, British Columbia, about the time of the Olympic Winter Games held there. Viewed as possible terrorists by some in government and the media, the refugees face bewildering labyrinths of steps to their goal of starting over in a new land.

Debut novelist Bala tells this story through three storylines—refugee Mahindan and his young son, one government adjudicator Grace, and his apprentice attorney Priha. Both Grace and Priha have their own immigrant backstories. Nothing happens quickly in this process or in the story’s telling! Admirable work. Could see how it became a Canada Reads contender; great for discussion. Ambitious. Very timely.

Mar 28, 2019

The anecdotal book The Boat People by Sharon Bala revolves around the lives of many who took the major risks of their lives to risk all they have to get rid of brutal discrimination and oppression in Sri-Lanka. The book was quite interesting and showed the hardships and triumphs of immigrants. I personally enjoyed this book very much owing to the fact that I was educated about Canadian history! I would recommend this book to readers who are interested in non-fiction novels like such. I was intrigued by the fact that it revealed that immigration had not always been a perfect part of Canada’s history knowing that we are a diverse and multicultural country. Furthermore, this book was a good experience and overall an informative text which was enjoyable. It was not boring either due to the fact that they would write the book from a character's perspective which makes it easier to relate and visualize. Out a 5 star rating, I will give this book a 4. Since it was educational and also included ways to make sure the reader isn’t disheartened or bored of the book. In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to my friends and family would like there to be a part two, to show how their lives have progressed living in Canada. @Bibliogoblin of the Hamilton Public Library Teen Review Board

Jan 28, 2019

This is a politically timely book. The countries are different, and the refugees are fleeing a different situation, but the plight is all too familiar. The story is told from three sides: the refugees themselves (whose history turn out to be not necessarily all benevolent), “liberals” (if I may use the terms from American politics) who want to welcome them to their new country, and “conservatives” who have a hardline leader and want to keep them out. One of the author’s masterstrokes is to give one of the latter group some unresolved family issues concerning a similar story in the past. The horrors of war are described sparingly; this is mostly a character study – and a question looms over the entire book: what would you do if you were in one of the groups?

Jan 14, 2019

Really great reading. It's a view of the tricky process of immigration and looks into various eras of Canada's involvement.

Sep 17, 2018

I read a review of this book in the New York Times supplement with the Spec by an author I enjoy, Ru Freeman, but she was fairly lukewarm on this book. With Canada Reads it was the first book eliminated in a dramatic sequence (down to the last voter with four tied). I just have "The Marrow Thieves" to go, but I thought this book was the best. Took multiple views and also took us through a few layers where we realized nobody is perfectly innocent, but we do what we feel most comfortable with in order to survive. The book had an endorsement on the front cover from the author of An American War (also on the same Canada Reads contest) and had references to similar experiences related in the Canada Reads winner, Well worth the effort.

May 29, 2018

The author does a masterful job of presenting this story from various opposing points of view. Based on an event that occurred a decade ago, this story continues to have relevance. In fact, it seems to be a story doomed to be repeated over and over again. There are no easy answers, simple solutions or clear sides on which to form a solid opinion. This is the point. But reading the story from the conflicting positions helps us to understand, and building empathy for viewpoints other than or own is a practice we need to repeat ad infinitum.

Mar 26, 2018

I got off to a bit of a rough start with The Boat People, which opens in the midst of an action sequence that lacks any context, and then turns out to be a dream. Fortunately, this passage was relatively short, and the meat of the book proved to be more rewarding than this doubly trite opening. Once I was able to settle into the Sharon Bala’s writing style—which rejects any use of quotation marks or other indications of dialogue, requiring close attention to who is saying what, and whether something is an internal or external monologue—I was drawn into the three main characters, whose personalities and histories ultimately drive the story.

Full review:

Mar 17, 2018

This one caught my eye because it was based in Vancouver but written by a Newfoundlander (this seemed kind-of funny to me).
With the major influx of refugees being so much in the news these days, this story puts a person into the headlines. The story focuses on a man fleeing Sri Lanka with his 6-year-old son and arriving in Canada on a refugee boat in 2009. Not only does it go into why the man was so desperate to leave Sri Lanka (I didn't know about their civil war) but also his difficulties with the refugee system in Canada. Back stories include the lives of the lawyer representing him and the adjudicator trying to figure out if he is a terrorist and deciding whether he can stay in Canada or be returned to Sri Lanka (and probable death).
This book was eye-opening without being preachy and I am glad I read it.
I look forward to reading another book by this author.

View All Comments


Add a Summary
Mar 26, 2018

Widower Mahindan leaves civil war-torn Sri Lanka dreaming of a new life in Canada for his young son, Sellian, who has already lost his mother and so much else to the conflict between the ruling Sinhalese and the separatist Tamil Tigers. Desperate to escape, Mahindan takes passage for them on an ancient, converted cargo boat, which will smuggle hundreds of refugees across the ocean to the west coast of Canada. But when they land, what awaits them is not a new life, but imprisonment, while Canadian authorities struggle to process the massive influx of refugee claimants, and the public debates whether the boat people should be allowed in at all. His fate, and the fate of his son, will lie in the hands of the Canadian lawyers and adjudicators, each of whom has a story of their own.


Add a Quote
Mar 26, 2018

Certain people felt too rooted, too comfortable. They took it for granted that they deserved to be here more than us. Entitlement closed their hearts


Add Age Suitability

There are no ages for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at APL

To Top