Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel Peaces begins when lovers Otto and Xavier Shin embark on a not-quite-honeymoon (they’ve decided against marriage but have agreed to share a surname) on board the Lucky Day, a steam train owned by Xavier’s eccentric millionaire aunt. Expecting a relaxing and luxurious holiday, they instead enter a zone where nothing is quite as it seems. Their fellow passenger, the reclusive Ava Kapoor, must prove her own sanity by the age of thirty or lose a vast inheritance. A man named Přem who is apparently invisible to Ava, and may or may not have figured in Otto’s past too, hovers obtrusively over the narrative. One of the train’s carriages plays host to an apparently little-visited bazaar. A preternaturally incisive mongoose finds love. At one point, I’m pretty sure, Otto finds himself fleeing from someone dressed in a diver’s suit.
The train journey turning strange is a familiar motif in speculative fiction. Think of the Gothic protagonist disembarking a forebodingly empty train at a forebodingly empty station (a trope recently updated in T.J. Klune’s rather unGothic The House in the Cerulean Sea); the divine steam trains that run across the city of Palimpsest in Catherynne M. Valente’s novel of that name; the mummy rampaging through a space-bound Orient Express in the prosaically-titled Doctor Who episode Mummy on the Orient Express (a text which also plays with selective invisibility, albeit with considerably less subtlety and attention to metaphoric resonance). Crucially, despite the modern or science-fictional settings of the texts in which they appear, these trains are distinctly old-fashioned, even opulent; even Klune’s, the most prosaic of the ones I’ve listed here, has manually-operated sliding carriage doors and a chatty attendant. No overcrowded, utilitarian Network Rail trains here.
This opulence, this nostalgia for the Age of Steam (which in fact its contemporaries experienced as noisy, dirty and dangerous) is, I think, inextricably bound up with the imaginative work these texts are doing. One steps aboard a vehicle that has appeared, as if by magic, out of a past that never existed, and is whisked away into a transitional realm where one’s needs are privileged to a greater extent than they are in the real world. So, Klune’s protagonist Linus finds love and found family, and gains importance through his self-assigned status as bureaucratic protector of that family; Valente’s train-obsessed Sei becomes inextricably bound to Palimpsest’s engines; the Doctor and Clara enter a facsimile of 30s privilege underpinned by the labour of servants and AI; and Oyeyemi’s lovers essentially spend the length of the novel in a world containing only four or five people, including them. The fantasy of the steam train is, then, essentially a fantasy of wealth; no-one, after all, dreams of travelling in the uncomfortable, roofless third-class carriages of the early Victorian era. It’s no coincidence that Xavier comes from a dynasty of millionaires.
This is why, I think, my response to Peaces boils down to: “pleasant read, not so memorable”. Otto, Xavier, Ava and Přem exist in an airless bubble of privilege and steampunk retro-nostalgia; in this context, their crises of identity and ontological speculation feel just a little…academic. To put it another way: the novel is a puzzle box of sorts, one that perhaps has no solution. Is Ava lying when she claims not to see Přem, and if so, why? When Otto ran into the burning house that haunts his memory, was the man he spotted in the flames real or a product of his imagination? These are the questions the narrative teases us with, and although they are intriguing ones – keeping the reader pleasingly off-kilter – there’s no sense that their answers are ultimately very important. The circumstances of the novel are too removed from the circumstances and concerns of everyday reality for the text to be truly destabilising of our expectations of narrative in the way that I think Oyeyemi is going for.
That’s a shame, because that work of destabilisation, making familiar stories and tropes mean different things to what they mean in their original contexts – tying those familiar stories to political currents in the real world – is something Oyeyemi is very good at, and it’s what continues to draw me to her work. Whimsical though it is, Peaces lacks the incisive playfulness of Mr Fox, the menacing ontological uncertainty of The Icarus Girl; lyrical though it is, it misses the fairytale resonance of Boy, Snow, Bird (acknowledging the transphobia of that novel). I enjoyed spending time with it; I liked its strangeness, its slipstream sensibilities, the intellectual challenge it poses the reader. But it feels, ultimately, inessential, and that’s not something I’m used to getting from an Oyeyemi novel.