Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi review – a raging hothouse of a novel | Fiction

huhelen Oyeyemi is a con man, a discombobulator, a peddler of bewilderment. She crushes fables and fairy tales into a powder and laces her fiction with it like a kind of literary hallucinogen. Her novels must bear pharmaceutical warning labels: Do not operate heavy machinery while intoxicated. Symptoms may include unclear realism and a persistent allegorical itch.

In her most recent books, the British author seems to have experimented with how much explanatory and explanatory weight she can throw overboard to make room for filigree and romp. In 2019 Gingerbread, the result was something like immersive theater – an invitation to explore. What we lost in orientation, we gained in leeway. Gingerbread could be read as a novel about the Brexit insularity, the intractable forces of social immobility, or simply a high fantasy about mind-blowing cookies.

Oyeyemi’s seventh novel, Peaces, is set in a train, a chimeric engine so scaled and silvered that it almost looks like creatures. In the carriages, the laws of physics don’t quite apply; the air crackles with ontological doubt (“If you stuck out your tongue, it danced right there, right on the tip: the fizz of conditionality”). Trains offer a “gooey mix of envelopment and exposure,” Oyeyemi writes; a “breeding ground for intense encounters”. This one – The Lucky Day – comes with a postal sorting office, portrait gallery, sauna and storage cell. Not to mention a glass-paneled cash cart. And that’s what Oyeyemi has built here: a raging hotbed of a novel.

In the wilderness of “deepest Kent” we join Otto and Xavier Shin – a hypnotist and his ghostwriter lover – as they embark on their “non-honeymoon journey”. The journey is a gift from a rich sleepless aunt (“she looks so tired that no one realizes she is rich”), and they are joined – as always – by Árpád, Otto’s companion mongoose, 30th in a distinguished line of companion mongooses dating back two centuries (mongooses have to travel before they reach middle age, Oyeyemi explains, “otherwise they become narrow-minded”).

Otto and Xavier share The Lucky Day with three others: a composer-cum-driver, a debt counselor (mystical trains are expensive) and the owner of the train, theremin virtuoso Ava Kapoor, who – it is rumored – never disembarks. Is she a hermit or a prisoner? When our loved ones catch a glimpse of her through a window, they can’t tell if the sign she’s holding says “HELLO” or “HELP.”

It’s all so steeped in whimsy and whimsy—the leashed mongoose, the theremin, the brocade fainting couch in the train library that’s “the color of Darjeeling tea in the fourth minute of brewing”—the stuff of Wes Anderson fever dreams. But, unlike Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, the Empire’s legacy is wild and awake on Oyeyemi’s train, not just intricate wallpaper. The Lucky Day was once a tea smuggling train, with shady connections to the East India Company. With old money come old atrocities. “I’m sure hardly anyone fools themselves that all their ancestors were decent,” Otto reminds us.

As The Lucky Day winds through a landscape our loved ones don’t recognize, Peaces winds in and out of time and memory, collecting symbols and backstories as clues to a grand whodunnit. What do a burning house, a weekday boxer shorts, a board game duel, a handful of emeralds, a contentious inheritance and a man in a peacock green diving suit have in common? How come each of the passengers sees a different image emerge from the white-on-white paintings in the gallery car? Just as we suspect Oyeyemi has lost control – as her locomotive races into the Dadaist chaos – Ava arrives waving an envelope bearing the unofficial little postage stamp of the “Agency for Introducing a Sense of Proportion in Novel Writing”. Whether those missive delights or maddens will depend entirely on the reader.

By the time Oyeyemi’s intentionally disproportionate train has come to a halt, a connecting character has appeared in silhouette: the artist who painted those shape-shifting canvases. As his connection to our cast is deepened, so is a parable of connection, of the ways we shape-shift to fulfill each other’s desires. Peaces turns the existential fear of feeling unseen into a physical reality. How easy it is to lose yourself – or obliterate someone else – with the heat of your own desire. Living unseen is a tragedy, but Peaces continues Oyeyemi’s career-long project to help us not see – unraveling the neural knots that bound childhood fairy tales within us: those tales of sovereignty and rule, of floppy princesses and their flaxen-haired lovers, of snowy purity and moral absolutes. White-on-white. “Here’s to not see the world,” Ava rejoices.

What we lose in orientation in this novel, we gain in a kind of relentless speed. It’s hard not to feel like a passenger aboard this book, a little nauseous from watching the story fade and quiver. But for all her two excesses, few writers can match Oyeyemi’s creative joy. On a first reading, Peaces works best when you stop trying to solve it, and instead surrender to that exuberance. Far better to sit back and enjoy the strange sensuality of this book and the sherbet of its humor; to enjoy the company of platinum-haired, jewelry collector Árpád, nimble when Nijinsky reincarnates; or maybe try to imagine a melody that makes a “theremin sound like it’s looking back on a long life of crime”. When it’s over, you’ll return – with clear eyes – for a second trip.

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery costs may be charged.

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