By Rebecca Harrington. (Doubleday, 240 pages, $24.95.)
There’s certainly a chance that some social media mavens will read Rebecca Harrington’s “Sociable” and regard it as a spot-on depiction of their lives. But it is, of course, a deft skewering of a world that revolves around Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, online dating sites and so on.
A skewer may even be too blunt an instrument to describe Harrington’s weapon. An acupuncture needle might be more accurate, although that’s designed to heal and this is a wounding novel. Especially for traditional journalists such as J.W., hired by the online site journalism.ly for gravitas and to shepherd content such as “15 Things Only Coffee Lovers Know” toward viral status. Interviewing someone vaults a story into the investigative realm. J.W. is dying, but needs the job.
Elinor is a young co-worker, but her story revolves more around her breakup with Mike and how personal trauma today is shared and swiped, and how people perceive themselves in the digital world. “[Elinor] wanted people to see her as beautiful and moral, warmhearted and historically correct, extremely tolerant but able to call out wrongdoing when she saw it, aware of all possible holes in her thinking, not defensive except when provoked, mildly irreverent but then unexpectedly sincere about the possibility of the American experiment. … Luckily, this is one of the easier personalities in the world to pretend that you have.”
See? Some readers may marvel at Harrington’s insight, while others will wince. “Sociable” is just barely fiction. Discuss.
The Boat People
By Sharon Bala. (Anchor, 338 pages, $16.95.)
As immigration debates swirl in Congress and refugees swarm across borders around the globe, a timely and engaging book humanizes the polarizing political debates.
“The Boat People,” just out in paperback, is a provocative debut novel by Canadian author Sharon Bala, inspired by the true story of two ships that arrived in Canada in 2009 and 2010 carrying hundreds of ethnic Tamil asylum-seekers who fled war and persecution in Sri Lanka. Bala describes her characters’ exhilaration as the Vancouver shore comes into view and naval vessels speed toward their ship … to welcome them? No; in her story and in real life, immigration authorities intercepted the rusty vessels and incarcerated the refugees, many emaciated and sick, all without belongings or resources and most without language skills to tell their stories.
Bala’s central character is Mahindan, a Tamil who has made the harrowing journey in the ship’s crowded, filthy hold with his 6-year-old son. As they disembark, the son is immediately sent away to be detained with the women while the men are shackled and taken to cells. It’s soon clear that authorities believe a terror group has sneaked into Canada among the boat people, and an undiscerning blanket of suspicion now hangs over them all.
Mahindan’s struggles to be reunited with his son and find freedom are the basis of a humanitarian drama told through the eyes of Mahindan, his reluctant lawyer and the judge who will hear his case for asylum. But in telling his story, Bala faithfully re-creates the painful processes and indignities that the real-life Tamils endured. She studied refugees’ stories, pored over news accounts and steeped herself in how newcomers to foreign shores have been treated throughout history. Her author notes reflect the dire current events that make this book so timely, relevant and frightening.
“This book is no longer the history lesson I imagined,” she writes. “It is a warning.”