Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

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Review by Simon Thomas

As a place to be trapped, a train has a good precedent. Whether Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, or simply the endless daily commute, train journeys offer a spectrum of life hurtling together in one direction, with limited options for alighting.

Helen Oyeymi is renowned for putting novels in spaces that don’t quite do what you’re expecting. A door might lead to another country, or the house might speak itself. So it was only a matter of time before she wrote a novel that took place almost entirely on a train.

This particular train journey is being taken by Otto (the narrator) and Xavier. They are describing it as their ‘non-honeymoon honeymoon’, a gift from someone that is suitably imprecise in why it has been given and what it is meant to achieve. Absolutely nothing in Peaces is to be pinned down. The couple don’t even know where the train is going.

The train was waiting on the London-bound track, looking more like a seafaring creature than a locomotive. Our companion at the time was a mongoose called Árpád, and he bristled at the sight of it. ‘See the dragon, see its mane,’ I whispered to him. Sleek scrolls of silvered metal flickered and twisted their way all along its long, low body. The train bore its name like a diadem, scarlet letters dancing along a ruby red band set just above the window of the driver’s cabin. T H E L U C K Y D A Y.

This isn’t a train of bustling passengers, though. At first it seems like Otto and Xavier might be more or less the only people on it, though others appear along the way – some of whom appear to live on the train, others come and go inexplicably. They know that Ava Kapoor is to be found on the train, and Otto sees her from a distance – but is she holding up a sign that says ‘help’ or simply ‘hello’? Why aren’t they allowed to speak to her? How does she relate to a young man called Přem, who isn’t on the train but is a figure from the couple’s past? 

At times, it feels like they have entered a fantasy land. Each carriage is something different – not just sitting places and sleeping places, but a sort of bazaar, an art gallery with mysterious paintings that seem to watch you, and a section of musical instruments. There is almost a dream-like quality to the setting, where every new section encountered is fantastical – but, somehow, is made to make sense in the context. What keeps Peaces tethered is the reality of the central couple. While they do have a mongoose, yes, and one who is apparently in a long line of mongoose companions, they also bicker and chatter like any ordinary couple. They have different memories of emotional milestones in their past, and squabble over these while simultaneously trying to work out what on earth is going on. And their romance is quite touching. Oyeyemi doesn’t keep the narrative rigidly to the train. While, in the present, Xavier and Otto are trapped there, the book breaks the tension by occasional dips in the past. These help build together a picture of what has happened, and how it might explain what’s going on in the present.

I’ve now read all of Oyeyemi’s books (see my review of Boy, Snow, Bird here), and I have got used to letting go of my usual expectations of what I’ll be getting from a novel. She is often so playful with truth and perspective that it’s hard to grasp onto what’s happening in any moment. Sometimes that is magical realism; sometimes it is simply her narrative playfulness that archly keeps you on your toes. I like her most when reality is clearly visible in among the fancifulness, and where I don’t feel too lost in abstraction. And I think, in Peaces, that forward-moving train helps. There is a similar forward momentum in the plot, in trying to establish the interrelation of characters and what motivates this journey. That’s not to say that Peaces will have a Christie-like conclusion, but perhaps it is as close as Oyeyemi gets to a neatly tied-up conclusion. I’ve seen reviews talk about twists, and there are some – there is even what could be called a denouement – but I think Peaces is more about the balance of a traditional plot trajectory alongside the recognition that nothing in life is quite that neat. The abstract and fantastical don’t quite disappear, and the mystery of the bizarre train isn’t lost. As with any Oyeyemi novel, I think it’s best to fling yourself into the maelstrom of what’s going on, enjoy the beautiful rhythms of the language, and wait for a sense of satisfaction at the end that comes with an author succeeded in their own unusual and ambitious approach to what a novel can be.

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Simon is co-founder of Shiny, and an Editor at Large. He blogs at Stuck in a Book.

Helen Oyeyemi, Peaces (Faber, 2021). 978-0571366576, 276pp., hardback.

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