Helen Oyeyemi is a winder, a resourceful, a peddler of perplexity. She reduces fables and fairy tales to powder, then mixes her fiction into them like a sort of literary hallucinogen. His novels must be accompanied by pharmaceutical warning labels: do not operate heavy machinery under the influence. Symptoms can include unrealism and a lingering allegorical itch.
In her most recent books, the British author seems to have experienced the weight of exposure and explanation that she can abandon to make room for filigree and antics. In 2019’s Gingerbread, the result was something akin to immersive theater – an invitation to explore. What we lost in orientation we gained in play space. Gingerbread could be read as a novel about the insularity of Brexit, the stubborn forces of social stillness, or simply as a high cookie fantasy. stupendous.
Oyeyemi’s seventh novel, Peaces, takes place on a train, a chimerical engine so scaly and silvery that it almost seems creatural. Inside his cars, the laws of physics don’t quite apply; the air crackles with ontological doubt (“If you stuck out your tongue, she would dance there, at the end: the sparkle of conditionality”). Trains offer a “sticky mix of enclosure and exhibition,” writes Oyeyemi; an “incubator of intense encounters”. This one – The Lucky Day – includes a postal sorting office, portrait gallery, sauna and holding cell. Not to mention a glass-fronted greenhouse car. And that’s what Oyeyemi built here: a novel greenhouse.
In the wilds of “the deepest Kent”, we join Otto and Xavier Shin – a magnetizer and his Negro lover – as they embark on their “honeymoon without honeymoon”. The trip is a gift from a wealthy insomniac aunt (“she looks so tired that no one realizes she’s rich”), and they are accompanied – as always – by Árpád, the mongoose companion of Otto, 30th in a distinguished line of companion mongooses dating back two centuries. (Mongooses should travel before they reach middle age, Oyeyemi explains, “otherwise they get narrow-minded”).
Otto and Xavier share The Lucky Day with three others: a songwriter-driver, a debt control officer (mystical trains are expensive) and the train’s owner, theremin virtuoso Ava Kapoor, who is rumored to never be never lands. Is she a recluse or a captive? When our lovers see her through a window, they don’t know if the sign she is holding says “HELLO” or “HELP”.
Everything is so imbued with eccentricity and whimsy – the mongoose on a leash, the theremin, the vanished brocade sofa in the train bookcase which is “the color of Darjeeling tea in the fourth minute of brewing” – the stuff of feverish dreams of Wes Anderson. But unlike Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, the empire’s legacy is wild and awake on the Oyeyemi Train, not just elaborate wallpaper. Lucky Day was once a tea smuggling train, with shady connections with the East India Company. With old money comes old cruelties. “I’m sure almost no one is kidding that all of their ancestors were decent,” Otto reminds us.
As The Lucky Day crosses a landscape that our lovers do not recognize, Peaces enters and leaves time and memory, accumulating symbols and stories like clues to a great thriller. What do a burning house, weekday underpants, a board game duel, a handful of emeralds, a disputed heirloom, and a man in a peacock-green diving suit have in common? Why is it that each passenger sees a different image emerge from the white-on-white paintings of the gallery car? Just as we suspect that Oyeyemi has lost control – as his locomotive weaves its way through Dadaist chaos – Ava arrives holding up an envelope bearing the small unofficial stamp of the “Agency for the Introduction of a Sense of Proportion in writing novels ”. Whether this missive delights or drives you crazy will depend entirely on the reader.
As Oyeyemi’s deliberately disproportionate train stopped, a unifying figure appeared in silhouette: the artist who painted these metamorphic canvases. As its connection to our cast stretches, so does a parable of connection, ways in which we change shape to satisfy the desires of the other. Peaces turns the existential terror of feeling invisible into a bodily reality. How easy it is to get lost – or to erase someone else – with the warmth of your own lust. Living without being seen is a tragedy, but Peaces continues Oyeyemi’s career-long project of helping us not to see – by unraveling the neural knots that childhood fairy tales tied in us: these stories of sovereignty and domination, of soft princesses and their suitors with blond hair, snowy purity and moral absolutes. White on white. “Here is so as not to see the world,” rejoices Ava.
What we lose in orientation in this novel, we gain in a kind of merciless velocity. It’s hard not to feel like a passenger aboard this book, a little nauseous from seeing the blurry and choppy narration. But despite both of his excesses, there are few writers who can match Oyeyemi’s creative joy. On a first read, Peaces works best when you stop trying to figure it out and surrender to that exuberance. Better to sit down and revel in the strange sensualities of this book and the sparkling sorbet of his mind; enjoy the company of Árpád, collector of platinum furry, supple jewelry as Nijinsky reincarnates; or maybe try to imagine a melody that makes a theremin sound like he is looking back on a long life of crime. Then when it’s over, come back – eyes clear – for a second trip.