Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi


My dear mum has a frequent complaint that I use long words and obscure phrases. Well, I stand guilty as charged and have no intention of changing my ways, and so will say boldly that Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel is about the oneiric and nominative determinis­m.

The point about words is that they can be precise. I shall begin with “oneiric”, relating to or pertaining to dreams. It is not a word like “dreamlike” or “dreamy”, with the connotatio­ns of a gauzy gavotte of fairies. It is more specific, and relates to the strange shifts, prophetic foreboding, buried memories and the psychologi­cal aspect of the dream. Nobody could begin this novel without a sense of unquiet lull. A couple, Xavier and Otto – who are on a honeymoon that is a not-honeymoon – embark on a train called The Lucky Day, which was a gift from an aunt. The train has different carriages, with symbols like a dagger, a bumblebee, a spinning wheel and a harp. Otto and Xavier are in the “Clock Carriage”. The train has a single permanent passenger, the enigmatic and do-no-disturb Ava Kapoor; where the train is going, except around in circles, is equally enigmatic.

The book, like many of Oyeyemi’s, is a set of nested narratives. We learn about the previous histories Xavier and Otto have had on trains, and what the host’s assistants Allegra Yu and Laura de Souza have to reveal about what the heck is going on.

Now we turn to nominative determinis­m. Basically: your name defines you, and Oyeyemi is both florid and flagrant in her use of names. Otto and Xavier have taken his married name – Shin – which is Korean for real, true or belief.

Oyeyemi is a writer whose career has always fascinated me, but here it seems like a misdirecti­on too far. Of course, a reader like me enjoys puzzle boxes. But the characters here are so strangely cardboard that I did not feel the need to open the box.

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