Sometimes you just want a nice, quick, and easy read. No heavy themes, no complicated introspection, no intricate sub-plots that threaten to take on a life or book of their own. In her latest offering, “On the Divinity of Second Chances” author Kaya McLaren takes the reader on a journey through the lives of a number of characters. But the reader only has to pack lightly to gain the insight and wisdom from this read, making it a perfect read for an afternoon or evening. It has all the intensity of a hot flash – appropriate as one of the characters is dealing with menopause – and lasts about as long. Think of it as speed-dating in literature. You can move on quickly without investing a ton of commitment.
The first thing readers will notice about this book is that it takes the notion of head-hopping to a whole new level. Defined as jumping from one mind to another by switching narrative angles, head-hopping allows the reader to get to know more than one character in a story. Usually this form of literary eavesdropping is limited to just a couple of main characters. In an unusual twist, McLaren gets into the minds of every character in the story whether their role is central or peripheral.
The back cover tells us that the central character, Jade, is a young woman who has to deal with her rather eccentric family. There is the menopausal mother, the retired father, the runaway brother, the longing to runaway sister, the gun-toting granny, plus a few extra characters that spring from the imagination of the characters. Jade’s constant companions include the imaginary friend dragged into adulthood and the kindred spirit passing from one life to the next.
The problem is the reader never gets too deeply into Jade’s psyche compared to more traditional approaches; refreshing for readers looking for a new way to tell a story. Instead the reader is taken on a whirlwind tour through the characters minds. Readers will enjoy the annoyance Jade’s mother feels as she deals with menopause and a husband she has all but fallen out of love and out of step with. Just a suddenly, the husband’s mind is probed for how he feels about his wife and his own impending forced self-reinvention. But the introspection goes no further.
Telling the story from numerous points of view gives new meaning to omniscient narration; the reader has access to all characters inner-most thoughts to what is going on around them. It is highly enjoyable to see how one character plays off against another and internal struggles. But the reader must be prepared for a never-ending change parade of narratives that prevent getting too deeply involved with any one particular character. This is where the novel either fails or succeeds, depending on a readers’ preference. Unlike most novels that leave some of the most interesting characters relegated to mere second bananas, McLaren gives equal time to all. This makes it the kind of novel where each reader can virtually customize the read to suit their preferences as there is pretty much a character for everyone.
Readers are easily guided from one head to another with clear introductions at the beginning of each new section (the book avoids using chapters). Be prepared for moments that demand the reader put aside any disbelief in the unseen as the characters unseen are treated with the same tangibility as their mortal sidekicks. This is where the novel branches out beyond the usual musings on life themes. Readers can decide how deeply they wish to draw out the various lessons and triumphs experienced by the characters before getting completely overwhelmed.
Each character, Jade included, travels along their own parallel lifeline and this novel intertwines the stories until they unfold, then re-fold again into a virtual origami of human psychosis. Non-fiction readers will enjoy this book as a quick respite that exercises creative thinking in the form of a guilty pleasure before returning to subjects that are in the deep end of the spectrum.
‘On the Divinity of Second Chances’ will lack the depth many fiction readers crave and leave those readers feeling as though they have just spent the afternoon on a literary speed-dating session. Yet the novel gives a cranial workout that takes readers on a journey best travelled lightly without the need to drag along too much literary and psychological baggage. Do not think of it as just a superficial treatment of the characters but more of a tantalizing view into a mind without the emotional investment. McLaren has given a gift to readers who can practise selective cheering for any number of characters.
**Penguin Publishers provided this review copy of ‘On the Divinity of Second Chances’ to me completely free of charge.
On the Divinity of Second Chances, Kaya McLaren, Penguin Group (USA), New York, 2004. 322 pp.