Christopher Shrimpton

A topsy-turvy world: Peaces, by Helen Oyeyemi, reviewed

Two men and their pet mongoose board a mysterious train in Kent and embark on a surreal journey that is strangely unmemorable

A topsy-turvy world: Peaces, by Helen Oyeyemi, reviewed
Helen Oyeyemi. [Getty Images]
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Peaces

Helen Oyeyemi

Faber, pp. 272, £14.99

At a village train station in deepest Kent two men and their pet mongoose are setting off on their honeymoon. The men are Otto and Xavier Shin and the mongoose is Árpád Montague XXX; the train is the Lucky Day — a former tea-smuggler’s transportation, now home to a mysterious woman named Ava Kapoor. They do not know who she is or where they are heading. Nonetheless they embark, happy in the knowledge that anything could happen.

Readers familiar with Helen Oyeyemi will already feel at home. Playful, otherworldly and sinister, her novels tend to inhabit a fairy-tale world of wicked stepmothers, haunted houses and run-away children. Mr Fox cannibalised parts of Bluebeard; Gingerbread shared ingredients with Hansel and Gretel. Peaces, her latest novel, is less obviously grounded in the fairy-tale formula. There is no plot as such, and the style is chatty and arch. ‘Bling a ling a ling,’ says Otto when the train pulls up. ‘A tad conspicuous for a tea-smuggling train, isn’t it?’

Otto and Xavier board the train and arrive in a topsy-turvy world. The first carriage they enter has furniture arranged on the ceiling. They spot Ava Kapoor, or so they think, but she is holding a sign saying ‘HELP’. Or is it ‘HELLO’? Nothing is certain. Their fellow passengers have bizarre backstories: one is the daughter of the North American Go champion; another was once employed to play the theremin in an empty room. They are all linked to a man named Pemsyl, whose ghostly presence haunts the train.

Oyeyemi has described the novel as a ‘relationship book’. So it is, but in an off-putting way: the language is often sickly (‘It was the sound of his voice and the sweet sting of his glance that hurt me in ways only he could kiss better’), with frequent chirpy asides (‘People may betray you, but the right pair of boxers — never’). The tone is surprisingly steamy (‘Are you completely naked underneath that dress, purple and swollen or scratchy and diaristic?’) Despite various quirks, the characters are all interchangeable.

Peaces is wildly unhinged: slapstick, spooky and happy to talk itself in circles. This is obviously meant to be the fun of it. It takes hazy aim at notions of identity, sexuality, nationality (fixed or unfixed) and is pleasingly indifferent to what it discovers. From beginning to end it’s a busy trip, though you may not remember where you went.