Book review: The Bureau of Second Chances, by Sheena Kalayil

It feels lazy to compare The Bureau Of Second Chances to Deborah Moggach's 2004 novel These Foolish Things, upon which the 2011 comedy drama, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, was based '“ but it is impossible not to. It is not just that both books are set in India, or that they both tell the stories of people who have decided, at a time of change in their life, to move to the fascinating, even mysterious subcontinent. There is also a synchronicity between the novels, and a similar, bittersweet, uplifting tone which makes them impossible to put down.
Sheena Kalayil, author of The Bureau of Second ChancesSheena Kalayil, author of The Bureau of Second Chances
Sheena Kalayil, author of The Bureau of Second Chances

Thomas Ibalil, the protagonist in The Bureau Of Second Chances, is far younger than the residents of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and has no desire to retire. Yet, at the age of 50-something, he has found himself at a crossroads in life: his beloved wife, Nimmy, has died of cancer, leaving him alone. Their daughter Nina, a young woman “full of ambitions and desires he had no knowledge of”, lives in Paris with her French boyfriend, and he feels he is rattling around in his London house.

For Thomas, the move to India is a return home after more than 30 years, and he finds the country familiar in some ways but alien in others. Returning to his house in a fishing village in Kerala, he agrees to look after an optician’s business belonging to his friend. He hasn’t retired, then, but neither has he found himself a long-term or sustainable way of life to replace the stable situation he had in London. Soon, however, Thomas finds himself embroiled in the Bureau of the title – a side business run by optical assistant Rani, who wants to help people find a second chance at love after divorce.

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Various opportunities to create a new future present themselves to Thomas – not least with glamorous and attractive, yet down-to-earth expat Vee, who, despite the fact that she is married (albeit, it is suggested, unhappily), appears to be the solution to his problems. However, adrift in a country where, Thomas admits, his wife had more close ties than he does, he is unable to find what he is looking for. He was, he quickly realises, “too reliant” on Nimmy – not in a domestic way, but in terms of the life they had built together. But then, with some reticence at first, Thomas’s friendship with Rani quickly moves from being a secondary thread of the story to a central theme, opening up surprising opportunities.

Edinburgh University graduate Kalayil writes beautifully, painting colourful portraits of her characters and managing her story’s unexpected twists with aplomb.

The Bureau of Second Chances, by Sheena Kalayil, Polygon, £8.99