The Bureau of Second Chances by Sheena Kalayil

Review published on April 11, 2017.

Thomas spent his childhood in Kerala, entered into an arranged marriage with Nimmy and emigrated to London, where they both worked for 30 years and raised a daughter. We are not told all that much about the seemingly quiet life they led until Nimmy’s death just a few months before the book opens and we see Thomas returning to Kerala, to a house he and Nimmy had built with their joint retirement in mind. Thomas agrees to take care of a friend’s business for six months and so begins to meet new people, some whom have also spent time abroad and some who have not.

For the first half of this novel I felt disappointed that it was going to turn out to be a simple story of a middle-aged widower finding a second love, this time chosen for himself, either through a chance meeting or through the match-making enthusiasm of his young colleague Rani. Then the narrative took an unexpected swerve into much more interesting territory and raised some fascinating aspects of modern India and its people.

First there is Thomas’ relationship with his daughter, born in England and now living in Paris. She has never known the country Thomas returns to with the idea that he is coming home. It has never been her home and, moreover, growing up as the child of emigrants she regarded her small family as her home and it has been taken from her, not just by Nimmy dying but now by Thomas removing himself to a place he is emotionally attached to but she is not. Thomas’ desire for a fresh start begins to seem selfish and his failure to connect his daughter to her Indian heritage short sighted.

The theme of the position of women in modern India is introduced through the character of Rani. A young woman encouraged to study and lead an independent life. No longer a financial burden on her struggling family, she has romantic notions of personal freedom at odds with the world she lives in. Thomas’ slow awakening to Rani’s situation was one of the strengths of the story for me, delicately and sympathetically written. In fact the overall impression I am left with from reading this book is one of important and topical social issues sensitively handled. Well worth persevering with the rather overlong first half to get to the interesting second half and a bitter-sweet ending.

Sue Broom 4/4

The Bureau of Second Chances by Sheena Kalayil
Polygon 9781846973925 pbk Jun 2017

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