Mimetic Histories

Reviewed by Shazia Hafiz Ramji

Inspired by the 2010 incident involving the MV Sun Sea, a Thai cargo ship carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers, Sharon Bala’s debut novel, The Boat People, traces the journey of a rusty cargo ship ferrying Sri Lankan refugees to Vancouver. Told from the perspectives of Mahindan, a refugee; Priya, a reluctant lawyer; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese Canadian adjudicator responsible for Mahindan’s fate, The Boat People brims with nuance regarding the intergenerational difference and privilege embodied by the trio of characters who belong to the novel’s Asian Canadian community. Chapters alternate between Mahindan’s desperate need to avoid deportation and reunite with his family, Grace’s privileged suburban family life and reluctant sympathy, and Priya’s eventual investment in Mahindan’s case as an “articling student” whose ingenue-like character guides the reader through the bureaucracy of refugee law. Chapters also alternate between the cold prison and shores of Vancouver, and Mahindan’s Sri Lankan home, where he needs to escape the growing militancy of a terrorist organization known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Some of the refugees’ stories are brutal and violent, refusing to shy away from the realities of civil war. Bala’s narrator turns the question of moral responsibility onto the reader. When a woman speaks of her daughter’s rape by members of the LTTE, “Grace could feel [the reporters’] excitement” and the sensationalism of their sound bite: “[T]hose dogs, they had cut her hair.” The control offered by close or “deep” third-person narration guides us to sit with the difficulty of this reality—a timely and relevant perspective.

Like Bala’s novel, Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn draws its beginnings from history. In Page’s case, her father’s wartime love letters shaped the journey of her protagonists, Harry and Evelyn, who marry before World War II begins. Harry’s coming of age in London reveals his deep love for poetry, which keeps him buoyed up while he is at war in North Africa. When he returns, headstrong and charismatic, Evelyn’s OCD-like behaviours only increase, causing tension between them and their three daughters.

Dear Evelyn is cinematic and taut; each choice is followed by a consequence, taking us seamlessly across the world and further into time. The ripple effects of war are felt in curtailed dreams and stunted love. We glimpse heartbreaking and banal joys through the intertexts of British poetry and novels, the voices and lives of which offer solace and relief. Although the novel is peppered with references to canonical works such as those by Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, they create the effect of memory as an event in the psyche. Consider a passage from Harry’s experience in Tunisia, when he recalls being at school and reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

He did not care about the sense, but submitted to the rhythm and the sequence of images. It was a peculiar kind of medicine, a sort of service, even, but he began to feel a little better: still empty, but not utterly desolate.

Eliot is not explained but experienced by Harry; the poetry is felt in his body and connects him to the world outside his bunker, breaking the spell of despair. Page steeps us in the intimacy of her characters’ lives as they are nurtured by literature and aspire to shape themselves and their dreams after what they read, in a mimetic fashion.

Dear Evelyn is at once a deeply human and writerly novel which offers a rare portrait of a relationship circumscribed by the life and afterlife of war, but whose complexity shines a different light, particularly when seen through the eyes of Evelyn, whose desire for solitude and independence makes us question the expectations of women and married life, even and especially today.

This review “Mimetic Histories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Aug. 2020. Web.

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