The Boat People by Sharon Bala

“Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion.” – Brian Mulroney, Former Canadian Prime Minister

4/5 stars.
ebook, 363 pages.
Read from March 6, 2018 to March 12, 2018.

The Boat People is inspired by a real refugee crisis as detailed in the author’s notes. The MV Sun Sea incident happened in 2010 when a boat docked in British Columbia carrying nearly 500 illegal refugees who were trying to escape the Sri Lankan civil war. The journey took three months…three months of squalor and close living quarters, three months without a proper bath or meal, three months of nightmares from the horrors they left behind. Yet the intentions of the refugees were questioned when they were detained at the harbour. This work of fiction tries to capture what may have gone on during that time, not only for the refugees but the works, lawyers and politicians working with and against them.

The actual boat, the MV Sun Sea, arriving off the coast of Victoria full of Tamil refugees in 2010.

According to the author, in the real incident, there was a man who was a mechanic back in Sri Lanka that had to work with the Tiger terrorist group and it was this man that inspired the main character, Mahindan. After Mahindan’s wife dies in childbirth he becomes the sole provider of his son Sellian. As civil war tensions rise, Mahindan is left with no choice but to try and get aboard a smuggling ship to save the life of his young son. The horrors and death that Mahindan had to live with in order to board the boat are shocking and graphically detailed but when he and his other refugee countrymen are received in Canada they are detained and chained, placed into a prison, where Mahindan is separated from his son. The story also follows the perspective and family lives of the adjudicator, Grace, a Japanese-Canadian who is responsible for deciding the fate of the refugees, as well as Priya, a young Tamil-Canadian student lawyer who has found herself defending the refugees. The novel encompasses all perspectives and opinions on immigrants and refugees making you empathize with every party and giving you an encompassing image of the stresses and issues surrounding the story and the real-life issue itself. Grace is an example of a stressed and broken system in which people with no experience or right to making such hefty decisions are making and breaking them. Fred, Grace’s boss, represents the narrow but well-meaning persona of a conservative politician.

I saved this book to read last out of the five Canada Reads 2018 shortlist candidates because it has the best reviews. I have to admit, the first 120 pages were a slog. I felt disconnected from the characters and the story and felt bogged down in politics and details. I was baffled as to why people were in love with this book. However, that quickly changed. After I passed the quarter mark of the book the stakes got higher and I was soon enraptured in an emotionally gripping story.  And that ending! I was not prepared for it. Looking back, however, I feel it was the best way to end the story as it leaves the reader with the decision based on their own views of Canada.

This book opened my eyes and will open many others who read it on what the real realities of refugees.  In today’s world, especially in a Trump era of fake news, it is imperative that stories like this exist. Even for a fiction, it may be the only voice that some refugees get that someone will listen to.

The real incident changed Canada, for better or for worse, depending on who you ask, making it harder for refugees to come to Canada. The situation is worse in America with Trump’s reign and in the UK with the major vote of Brexit being based on the false belief that immigrants are stealing jobs. I hope that Canada will always be a safe place for those seeking refuge. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said it best, “Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion.”

American War by Omar El Akkad

What would happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself?

4/5 stars.
ebook, 320 pages.
Read from February 27, 2018 to March 6, 2018.

When I first started reading this novel, the fourth out of the five books for me off the Canada Reads 2018 shortlist, I let out a sigh of exasperation realizing it was yet another dystopian story which, is not generally my favourite genre. The reason being is that most of them are YA and have little literary quality. Granted, this is not true for all books in the genre, you just take a look at some of the stellar stories by Margaret Atwood.  This book while not quite what I would call Atwood quality is still one of the better adult dystopian stories I have read.

Set in the future, the world is in an environmental crisis in which many coastlines and cities have been swallowed up by the rising tides. America is under siege as it’s second civil war takes root. The South is unwilling to give up the fossil fuels that drive their economy and are tired of being pushed around and ignored by the Northern part of the country. The tension between the two sides erupts with violent consequences as this battle is one that will last a lifetime, especially for one family. Martina and Benjamin Chestnut and their three children Simon, Dana and Sarat live in Louisiana. The girls are fraternal twins but could not be more different. They are only six years old when the war begins. While not quite in the South, Martina decides to take her family to a refugee camp called Camp Patience after Benjamin dies and as bombs start to rain down near their home. It was a decision that she would come to regret. The refugee camp is no holiday and no place to raise children but they manage to get by for the next few years as a bloody battle rages on outside the camps barriers. The story follows Sarat, a feisty and brave young girl who ends up being influenced by the Rebels in the South and an influential man with certain resources and connections. Sarat begins learning skills to help her become a pawn in the game of war.

An unspeakable tragedy hits Camp Patience. The event is a turning point in which Sarat’s persona hardens as well as her need for revenge against the people who have done her and her family wrong. Sarat spends her whole life fighting and suffering. It is all she knows. How deep will one betrayal afflict her and how will her choices affect the future outcome of her family as well as the whole country?

When I first started reading this novel I was trying to pinpoint exactly what purpose Sarat’s story is serving. Is it that regardless of circumstances people are allowed to fight for their beliefs? Or is it about suffering or revenge? Then it hit me. Every single war strategy used in this book is one that America has used as tactics in war: drone strikes, refugee camps, terror cells, being provided with weapons by foreign governments, illegal detention facilities, torture etc. This book brings America’s wars home and shows the gritty and not-so-politically correct tactics that are sometimes employed during war times.  This book is meant to open your eyes to the realities of war and show that it is never as black and white as it seems, or how the media portrays it or how your liberal friend feels about it. War is suffering and nobody wins.

The ending of this tragedy only gets more tragic. I wished for nothing more than for Sarat to continue being the same person. But, well, I can’t stay more without spoiling it!  The author does an impeccable job of painting the pages in the blood of war and allowing the reader to feel apart of the plot as you follow the entire Chestnut family.

The emotional depth was a big win for me in this book but I also felt bogged down with a tangle of details, shifting perspectives and time changes. This clunky approach was a big let down as I felt like this story had the potential to be something extraordinary.  I still really enjoyed the unique story and the exceptional characters but the execution was missing that organizational spark.

The author’s career as a journalist sheds some light on how he can write about war so vividly.  He is an award-winning journalist who has travelled the globe and has covered some of the biggest news stories on wars in our recent history.

At this point, as I have now read four out of the five shortlisted 2018 Canada Reads novels and I would say that this novel best meets the criteria of ‘one book to open your eyes”. With jaw-dropping moments of emotion to shocking realities of violence that are taking place in our world right now, you come to see Sarat a real and flawed person. A person that makes terrifying decisions that, within the acts of war, are neither right nor wrong but rather her justification to end her own suffering.

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

“Forgiveness is moving on. It is a daily act that looks forward. Forgiveness smiles.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 210 pages.
Read from February 20, 2018 to February 27, 2018.

This was the one book in the 2018 Canada Reads that I was most excited for. While the book started slow I was absolutely captivated by the brutal history of this family and was soon not able to put it down.

Sakamoto’s family has a rich, tragic and courageous history. His grandfather on his mother’s side, a white-Canadian from the east coast, joined the war efforts in WWII where he was captured in Hong Kong by the Japanese. He lived and suffered intensely for four years in POW camp. His grandmother, on his father’s side, is a Japanese-born Canadian. Sakamoto details the horrifying things that the Canadian government did to his grandmother’s family and the Japanese living in Canada during WWII, especially after the Pearl Harbour bombing. This is a part of history that most Canadians know little about or the brutality of what we did to our own people. I know I sure didn’t and it really opened my eyes. Canada is often viewed as an untainted and tolerant place to live but our own history is just as stained as others. Additionally, I imagine very few Canadians know of the regiments that served out in Hong Kong and the losing battle that they had to endure.

The book continues through Sakamoto’s family saga and the remarkable ability for his grandparents to forgive was a constant foundation in his life. Can you imagine when Sakamoto’s parents wanted to marry how that might have felt to their own parents? Each had suffered so much from each other’s different ethnicities and tet their powerful understanding, shared suffering, and ability to move forward is nothing short of courageous. Sakamoto also details the difficult upbringing he had with his alcoholic mother and how that shaped his future ambitions and responsibilities.

Mitsue Sakamoto, the author’s grandmother, Phyllis MacLean the author’s mother, Ralph MacLean, the author’s grandfather and Stan Sakamoto the author’s father in Medicine Hat Alberta in 1968. Source: The Daily Mail

Sakamoto’s story is highly emotional and I would be lying if I did not say I welled up in few parts.  The suffering and tenacity of his grandparents and even the death of his mother were hard to bear as a reader. Sakamoto really drew into some great emotional depth with his story-telling. The added pictures in the book were also a great touch as it really felt like you knew his family.

While I ended up loving this book, I did not start off feeling that way. The book had a slow start for me as I was initially unsure as to where this story or memoir was going. I found some of the initial story transitions to be a bit clunky, though once his grandfather set off for the war things smoothed out and the main theme of the story was starting to finally come together.  While I enjoyed the story of his upbringing and the suffering endured by him and his mother with her alcoholism it was a massive shift in the direction of the book. The book was now reading more like an autobiography. This disjointing and lack of connection from his grandparent’s story to his own story was not as successful as the rest of the emotionally enticing parts about his grandparents. While his own story is moving in its own right, the novel just did not feel like a complete whole on the theme of forgiveness.  Even with that,  I decided on a 4-star review instead of 3 for this book because of how the book made me feel and for how intently I could not stop reading certain portions.

As I currently live in Hong Kong, I found the parts of his grandfather’s time there especially interesting.  However, Sakamoto mentioned that Kowloon is part of the New Territories and part of mainland China, which isn’t correct. Kowloon is a part of Hong Kong and is its own district.  Since 1997, China has since reclaimed Hong Kong but it is technically still its own country and many locals would not be happy being referred to as mainland China! It was wonderful envisioning these areas that I know well and what they would have been like during the war.  As a Canadian, it was also intriguing to read about a battle that took place during WWII that I imagine many Canadians don’t know about. There are some historical museums and treks in Hong Kong that I am now anxious to partake in.

So far, I have read 3 out of the 5 books in the 2018 Canada Reads. Compared to The Marrow Thieves and Precious Cargo, this novel is definitely one to “open your eyes” as the horrors of the Canadian government during WWII and the part that those Canadian regiments played out in Hong Kong are remarkable and need to be known. The content of this novel is truly jaw-dropping and extremely relevant in the context of today’s racial issues and learning from our own past. As it stands, this novel best meets the criteria for the debate in my opinion but what will the final two books hold? We will soon find out…