The Bureau of Second Chances by Sheena Kalayil

Review published on June 13, 2017.

The Bureau of Second Chances caught me off-guard; it’s been a long time since I’ve picked up a book on a whim, particularly one with such a seemingly gentle pace and plot, and it was a really very pleasant change of literary scenery for me.

The book begins with Thomas, a relatively young widower, packing up his life in London to return to India, after more than thirty years away. Thomas’ life in Kerala is initially quiet and solitary, but increased involvement in the lives of those around him brings all kinds of drama. Kalayil’s cast of characters is intriguing and full of surprises; there’s nobody in the novel who doesn’t completely convince the reader.

There’s something rather lovely about Sheena Kalayil’s writing; it’s not elaborate, but effectively conveys a relatable sense of Thomas’ grief, as he slowly moves on from his beloved wife’s death to build a new life for himself. He’s not a particularly dynamic character, with events happening to or around him rather than as a result of his actions; as such, the novel’s style is quiet and unassuming, much like its protagonist. I enjoyed the way in which Kalayil’s prose transported me to the novel’s setting; I felt a real familiarity with Thomas’ beach home and the town in which he finds both employment and emotional complications.

The relationships in The Bureau of Second Chances are what really drive the novel. Thomas’ dealings with his grown-up daughter are emotionally fraught and really effective in depicting the different complications that arise when children grow up and make a new set of demands on their parents. There’s also something of a surrogate father-daughter relationship to be seen between Thomas and Rani, the assistant at the optician’s store that he agrees to run as a favour to a friend; it’s quite a touching bond, but Kalayil manages to move this in a completely unexpected direction, making the novel somewhat less cosy in its final third. I wasn’t expecting to be surprised by this book, given how comfortable it made me feel at the outset, and so the plot twists that develop really grabbed my attention.

As well as being a very enjoyable solo read, I can imagine this book provoking plenty of reading group discussion; there are plenty of questionable decisions to dissect in addition to the intriguing characterisation and appealing setting. Overall, I’d recommend it.

Katy Goodwin-Bates 4/4

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

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