Helen Oyeyemi’s New Novel Is Not a Fairy Tale

By Helen Oyeyemi

The fairy tale has seen its share of modern reinterpretations, from gender-bent and feminist retellings to postmodern experiments by writers like Angela Carter and Robert Coover, who tested the limits of familiar narratives, twisting their hidden joints and hinges into infinite variations on the theme. And if these authors pushed the form to its recombinatory, orgiastic extremes, it could also be argued that they mapped its terrain entirely. What more was there to do with the fairy tale now that it had been dismantled, rebuilt, inverted and put through a blender?

Helen Oyeyemi, the award-winning British-Nigerian author of six previous novels, a pair of plays and a story collection, has made her reputation answering this question in new and unusual ways. In her hands, the realm of lore and the so-called “real world” exert a gravitational pull on each other, resulting in unexpected amalgamations of Bluebeard and Yoruban folk tales, Tinder and talking dolls, and complex, unconventional characters who tug the trajectory of recognizable tales out of the ruts and grooves of a well-traveled road.

With her newest novel, Oyeyemi ventures away from these familiar shapes, though not from the playful reinvention of genres and tropes. “Peaces” takes place on the Lucky Day, an esoteric, ramshackle, Wes Anderson-esque train whose ontological status is perched partway between the abstraction of a thought-object and the undeniably concrete world of lettuces, cubicles, Go boards and onboard saunas. Though vast, possibly boundless and filled with a seemingly innumerable number of whimsical, fantastical cars, the train is also subject to real-world burdens, like the tremendous debt accrued by its renovation and maintenance. It holds at least five passengers: Otto and Xavier Shin, lovebirds newly joined by name (though not by matrimony) who have received this “non-honeymoon honeymoon” trip from a wealthy aunt; Ava Kapoor, the train’s reclusive owner; her lover, Allegra Yu; and a taciturn legal representative named Laura De Souza. In addition to the Lucky Day’s human cargo, there are not one but two pet mongooses on board.

The first half of the novel borrows its momentum from the train itself, barreling forward toward an unknown destination of unknown import, lurching back and forth between the interiors of eccentrically decorated train cars and the playfully enigmatic interiorities of the characters. Oyeyemi is a master of leaps of thought and inference, of shifty velocity, and the story’s long setup has the discombobulating quality of walking through a moving vehicle while carrying a full-to-the-brim cup of very hot tea. We learn that Otto once ran into a burning building for reasons obscure, that Xavier was raised in part by Parisian grifters, but at first the threads don’t cohere — they blur and smear, as things do through glass, as they do in this description of a train journey from Xavier’s childhood: “Through the window he watched grass turn to water, water to concrete, concrete to scrawny trees, then hedgerows, leaf to stone, then back again, the landscape clothing itself in uninspired uniforms of gray, brown, black and blue as it jogged alongside the train, no longer expanding the horizon but leveling it.”

Halfway through, Oyeyemi achieves the impossible: She unstirs the soup, reconstituting the links that bind her eccentric cast of characters to one another, to the mysterious circumstances of Ava’s isolation, and to an additional, unforeseen character: Premysl Stojaspal, the son of the influential Karel Stojaspal, an artist who paints all-white canvases that reveal themselves differently to each viewer. Prem, whose claim to existence is even more fragile than that of the train, has appeared in some form to each of the train’s passengers — except for Ava, who has never managed (or perhaps never been willing) to catch even a glimpse of him. Though the narrative never strays from a tone that is light, agile and unsentimental, here its emotional stakes are clarified: What are the consequences of going unseen by the one person whom you most wish to perceive you?

Musing on his relationship with Xavier in the middle of their journey, Otto describes love as a headlong charge into a risky and inscrutable challenge: “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 favor 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.” Like a spell that erases every trace of what came before, love leaves a mystery in its wake.

The lure of real connection and real resolution, their transformative power turning an obscure object of pursuit into a steadfast counterpart, moves the cast of characters toward denouement in much the same way that a death motivates investigation in a locked-door murder mystery (like the one on the Orient Express, which featured another cast of deeply entangled characters). Here, secrets are revealed, skirmishes ensue, and at the book’s end the story lands more Patricia Highsmith than Agatha Christie: a maze of identity and desire that has an ending, but not a solution. Every piece of the puzzle falls into place, but the picture is never made whole. Perhaps this is Oyeyemi’s point: To be at peace with the vagaries of human connection, you have to learn to find the wholeness in every part.

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