The Bureau of Second Chances by Sheena Kalayil
|The Bureau of Second Chances by Sheena Kalayil|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: JY Saville|
|Summary: This surprisingly tense novel set in southern India has a thread of romance but also a serious side, exploring the displacement of an expat returning after thirty years and reassessing his life and aims.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: June 2017|
|Publisher: Polygon An Imprint of Birlinn Limited|
|External links: Author's website|
Recently widowed, with a grown-up daughter forging her own life abroad, London-based optometrist Thomas Imbalil takes early retirement and returns to his native India. After a short period enjoying the peace of his house overlooking the Arabian Sea, he agrees to commute to the city for a few months to look after Chacko's Optical Store to help out an old friend. Thomas soon discovers that the eager young assistant Rani is running another business on the side, but he agrees to turn a blind eye and leave it to his friend to deal with on his return. However, it stirs up thoughts and doubts within Thomas and before long he's involved whether he wants to be or not.
The setting on the coast of Kerala in southern India is nicely invoked, the heat and the colours, and the way Thomas gets called Misterthomasfromlondon. He isn't a tourist but because of his thirty years abroad he isn't quite local either, which leaves him in an odd position. The author said in an interview that she was deliberately trying to explore the experience of an expat whose child has grown up in a different country from the one they grew up in, and I think that aspect comes across well, the distance and difference between Thomas and his daughter, even before he moves to another continent. His attitude to Rani is strongly influenced by his perceived shortcomings as a father, as if by behaving in a particular way to her he is giving something to his daughter.
Before I started reading it I half-expected this novel to veer into romantic comedy. Instead it took a most unexpected turn which, once it had happened, seemed to follow perfectly naturally from what had gone before. There is plenty of light, with passages that will make you smile, but it has its share of darkness, touching on caste and social expectations in India, as well as reflections on marriage, illness and parenting. I found the main characters of Thomas and Rani particularly engaging, and I raced through the last third of the book on the edge of my seat, desperate to know how it turned out.
For a different take on retiring to India, you could try The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach but if it's the idea of a widower having doubts and making discoveries that appeals, I recommend The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick which is set mainly in York, London and Paris.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Bureau of Second Chances by Sheena Kalayil at Amazon.com.
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