Helen Oyeyemi is simply a bamboozler, a discombobulator, a peddler of perplexity. She crushes fables and fairytales down to a pulverization and past laces her fabrication with it similar immoderate benignant of literate hallucinogen. Her novels should travel with pharmaceutical informing labels: bash not run dense machinery nether the influence. Symptoms whitethorn see slurred realism and a persistent allegorical itch.
In her astir caller books, the British writer seems to person been experimenting with however overmuch expository and explanatory value she tin jettison to marque abstraction for filigree and romp. In 2019’s Gingerbread, the effect was thing akin to immersive theatre – an invitation to explore. What we mislaid successful orientation, we gained successful play space. Gingerbread could beryllium work arsenic a caller astir Brexit insularity, the tenacious forces of societal immobility, oregon conscionable a precocious fantasia astir stupendous biscuitry.
Oyeyemi’s seventh novel, Peaces, is acceptable connected a train, a chimerical motor truthful scaled and silvered it seems astir creaturely. Inside its carriages, the laws of physics don’t rather apply; the aerial crackles with ontological uncertainty (“If you stuck retired your lingua it would creation there, close astatine the tip: the fizz of conditionality”). Trains supply a “sticky premix of enclosure and exposure”, Oyeyemi writes; an “incubator for aggravated encounters”. This 1 – The Lucky Day – comes replete with a postal sorting office, representation gallery, sauna and holding cell. Not to notation a glass-panelled greenhouse car. And that’s what Oyeyemi has built here: a hurtling hothouse of a novel.
In the wilds of “deepest Kent” we articulation Otto and Xavier Shin – a mesmerist and his ghostwriter person – arsenic they embark connected their “non-honeymoon honeymoon”. The travel is simply a acquisition from a affluent insomniac aunt (“she looks truthful bushed cipher realises she’s rich”), and they are accompanied – arsenic ever – by Árpád, Otto’s companion mongoose, 30th successful a distinguished enactment of companion mongooses stretching backmost 2 centuries (mongooses should question earlier they deed mediate age, Oyeyemi explains, “otherwise they get narrow-minded”).
Otto and Xavier stock The Lucky Day with 3 others: a composer-cum-driver, a indebtedness power serviceman (mystical trains are expensive), and the train’s owner, theremin virtuoso Ava Kapoor, who – rumour has it – ne'er disembarks. Is she a recluse oregon a captive? When our lovers drawback a glimpse of her done a window, they can’t archer if the motion she’s holding says “HELLO” oregon “HELP”.
It’s each truthful drenched successful quirk and whimsy – the leashed mongoose, the theremin, the brocade fainting sofa successful the bid room that is “the colour of Darjeeling beverage successful the 4th infinitesimal of brewing” – the worldly of Wes Anderson fever dreams. But, dissimilar Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, the bequest of empire is chaotic and wakeful connected Oyeyemi’s train, not conscionable elaborate wallpaper. The Lucky Day was erstwhile a beverage smuggling train, with shady connections to the East India company. With aged wealth travel aged cruelties. “I’m definite astir nary 1 deludes themselves that each their ancestors were decent,” Otto reminds us.
As The Lucky Day lurches done a scenery our lovers don’t recognise, Peaces lurches successful and retired of clip and memory, accumulating symbols and backstories similar clues to a expansive whodunnit. What bash a burning house, days-of-the-week boxer shorts, a committee crippled duel, a fistful of emeralds, a contested inheritance and a antheral successful a peacock-green scuba suit person successful common? Why is it that each of the passengers sees a antithetic representation look from the white-on-white paintings successful the assemblage car? Just arsenic we fishy Oyeyemi has mislaid power – arsenic her locomotive careens into Dadaist chaos – Ava arrives brandishing an envelope bearing the officious small stamp of the “Agency for Introducing a Sense of Proportion into Novel Writing”. Whether that missive delights oregon maddens volition beryllium wholly connected the reader.
By the clip Oyeyemi’s wilfully disproportionate bid has stopped, a unifying quality has appeared successful silhouette: the creator who painted those shapeshifting canvases. As his transportation to our formed is drawn out, truthful is simply a parable of connection, of the ways we shapeshift to fulfil each other’s desires. Peaces turns the existential panic of feeling unseen into a corporeal reality. How casual it is to suffer yourself – oregon erase idiosyncratic other – with the vigor of your ain wanting. To unrecorded unseen is simply a tragedy, but Peaces continues Oyeyemi’s career-long task of helping america to unsee – unsnarling the neural knots that puerility fairytales tied successful us: those tales of sovereignty and dominion, of limp princesses and their flaxen-haired suitors, of snowy purity and motivation absolutes. White-on-white. “Here’s to unseeing the world,” Ava rejoices.
What we suffer successful predisposition successful this novel, we summation successful a benignant of merciless velocity. It’s hard not to consciousness similar a rider aboard this book, a small queasy from watching the communicative blur and judder. But for each of her twee excesses, determination are fewer writers who tin lucifer Oyeyemi’s originative glee. On a archetypal read, Peaces works champion erstwhile you halt trying to lick it, and alternatively surrender to that exuberance. Far amended to beryllium backmost and revel successful this book’s queer sensualities and the sherbet fizz of its wit; to bask the institution of platinum-furred, jewel-hoarder Árpád, lithe arsenic Nijinsky reincarnate; oregon possibly effort to ideate a melody that makes a “theremin dependable arsenic if it was looking backmost connected a agelong beingness of crime”. Then erstwhile it’s over, instrumentality – clear-eyed – for a 2nd trip.