Book review: Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

Peaces is a novel worthy of more than one visit. The story is set on a train, a character itself, intense spaces and fleeting glances – carriages in which the laws of physics have been suspended – a portrait gallery, a postal sorting office, a sauna and holding cell, a library with a brocade fainting couch, a glass panelled greenhouse car. The train is called Lucky Day and used to be a tea smuggling train, with dodgy connections to the East India company.

Even though, as I told you, it was an empty room, some of the compositions I played got a better reception than others.

Otto and Xavier Shin are lovers – a mesmerist and a ghostwriter. Otto has a jewel-hoarding mongoose called Arpad the 30th that has, along with some of his predecessors, been Otto’s companion since being acquired to protect him from venomous snakes as a child. Arpad accompanies them on the Lucky Day because mongooses should travel before they hit middle age, otherwise they get narrow-minded.

Xavier’s aunt gifts them a journey on the Lucky Day as a ‘non-honeymoon, honeymoon’ trip. There are only three other passengers on the train. A composer-train driver, a debt control officer, and the trains mysterious owner virtuosos Ava Kapoor. Or are there?

I’m sure almost no one deludes themselves that all their ancestors were decent. Pick a vein, any vein: mud mixed with lightning flows through, an unruly fusion of bad blood and good

In my first turn through this shapeshifting tale, I surrendered to it’s exuberance, revelled in its creative joy and shapeshifting whimsy. If literature were a magic mushroom trip – this would be it.

I was so taken by it, I took a second turn to try and piece together its mysterious puzzle, to orient myself in its pages, draw together the disparate times and memories, backstories and symbolism to find the common thread.

You run the romantic gauntlet for decades without knowing who exactly it is you’re giving and taking such a battering in order to reach. You run the gauntlet without knowing whether the person whose favour you seek will even be there once you somehow put that path strewn with sensory confetti and emotional gore behind you. And then, by some stroke of fortune, the gauntlet concludes, the person does exist after all, and you become that perpetually astonished lover from so many of the songs you used to find endlessly disingenuous.

Hidden in the quirk are whispers of the the effects of the legacy of the British Empire, old money and old cruelties, themes of connection, of desire and wanting, of feeling unseen and wanting to be seen. But the shunt and sway of the carriages and fleeting glimpses soon threw me off again so I was never quite sure what I saw – like the paintings by the artist on shapeshifting canvases and the man who may, or may not have leapt off the moving train.

Perhaps I will need to take the trip a third time…

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