Sheena Kalayil, The Bureau of Second Chances (Polygon, £8.99).
The trope of the recently widowed man returning to the ‘mother’ land from another country might, in other hands, have seemed just that, a trope. The man who’s returned from time to time and built a house near to his home village, amid the land which nurtured him, only to find that the country has, unbeknownst, altered out of all recognition, might seem a cliché. And in other hands that narrative might well have been clichéd; but Sheena Kalayil’s first novel for Polygon shows a writer who seems to have an almost preternatural skill and power.
The recently widowed Thomas returns to Kerala having spent twenty-five years working as an optician in Tooting. Thomas has, with his wife Nimmy, over the last five years of their lives together, built a house in Kochi, Kerala. When Nimmy dies he returns to this house having not been there in three years. Thomas is invited to take temporary charge of an optician’s in the Ernakulam district of Kochi. There he finds a receptionist, Rani, who seems efficiency itself, and also a young woman of ‘just the right caste and class to blend into the multitudes so well as to become invisible.’ She is someone who ‘by truly belonging seeped into the flesh of the country.’ Thus Rani seems to be a way of connecting with what is real in the Kerala. However, Thomas discovers that part of Rani’s efficiency is that she is running a dating agency. This a dating agency which specialises in uniting those who have been divorced, the ‘Bureau of Second Chances’ of the title. As Rani explains to Thomas, ‘they want a second chance […] Their marriages have ended but they still have a long life ahead.’ Rani who, at twenty-five, considers herself ‘almost an old maid’ clearly empathises with her clients and appears to be running a very successful business; if somewhat contrary to the mores of her time and place.
Rani is not the only woman in Thomas’s life. He and Nimmy have a daughter, Nina, who lives in Paris with her partner, Michel. Thomas feels almost alienated from Nina, who is clearly a modern young woman living a continental life which feels just as exotic to him, as his own life might appear to the reader. He perceives Nina’s not needing ‘solace from him’ as part of her growing up, and growing away. It is, in part, his perception that she has grown away and no longer needs her father, which is part of his leaving the UK; a perception which the novel later challenges.
And then there is Thomas’s sister who is a nun in a convent. And also Vishukumari, married to an American with an American son, visiting Kochi, who strikes up a conversation with Thomas and arouses in him emotions and desires which both surprise and disturb him. In fact, the men in the book are often boorish and violent. For example, the local police who visit the optician’s shop and attempt to shut it down; and are only stopped from doing so when the owner phones from America and pulls rank with a senior officer. On the other hand, there are also local fishermen who see Thomas swimming in the sea most days and who silently look out for him. And there is the young son of Thomas’s neighbour for whom Thomas builds a gazebo shelter out of sticks.
But it is the women who haunt Thomas, and over whom he frets and worries. His relationship with these women is both distant and almost neurotically attentive. When Thomas witnesses an accident in the street, he sees himself as ‘not a local. […] he was, as always, an onlooker. Even with his daughter, he was an onlooker.’ For Thomas, becoming ‘a local’ would mean attaining a feeling of comfort and composure for which he yearns but which is endlessly elusive, in contrast to his convent-bound sister’s effortlessly sensible worldliness.
All of this might feel a little claustrophobic, if wasn’t that the narrative, and Thomas’s character within it, are held in Kalayil’s beautiful prose and the measured, gently unfolded nature of that narrative. And that gentle unfolding holds the reader in an iron grip, so that the quiet story finally becomes a compelling page-turner.