Read An Excerpt from Helen Oyeyemi's New Novel, Peaces

A lonely young boy questions reality on an eerie train ride through the French countryside.

helen oyeymi, peaces
Design by Ingrid Frahm

When Xavier Shin was eleven years old, the Parisian couple he lived with at the time sent him to boarding school in Provence. They had driven him there and back at the beginning and end of the first few terms, but midway through his second year, partly because both of them liked a drink too much to volunteer as designated driver, they suggested taking the train instead. The journey by train was almost four hours long, and he travelled unaccompanied. That didn’t seem appropriate for a child as soft-spoken and baby-faced as he was, but all he really had to do was find the right platform at Gare de Lyon or at Gare de Marseille St. Charles, sit on the train, and be met on the other side by a responsible adult. Other passengers looked out for him, thinking him neglected or lost, but he was fine. He read comic books, began and completed homework assignments, or he listened to Handel’s water music on his Walkman, imagining that it had been composed for him to listen to aboard a flower-bedecked barge on the river Thames. All of this was more than preferable to the train ride Xavier had taken with a pair of inordinately squiffy parental bodies who’d lugged him from car to car inviting other passengers to quiz him on his weakest academic subjects … That will teach you, Francis Xavier Jae Kyung Shin … that will teach you to get a B in History. Oh, and just like a radioactive rainbow following acid rain, Mamoune’s star turn: accusing a frail old lady of stealing her pearl necklace, snatching the pearls off the lady’s neck, then realising, when she put it on and strand clinked against strand, that she was already wearing the necklace she’d been thinking of. After that Xavier took the train unaccompanied, or he didn’t go at all. That was the ultimatum he made, and they could tell he was serious.

He listened to Handel’s water music on his Walkman, imagining that it had been composed for him

One July afternoon, he was on his way back to those Paris people for the summer, body in his seat, mind hopping backward along the track, gaze holographically layering the chalky ridges that outlined miles and miles of storage crates over the bucolic picture-postcard scenes the windows had shown him just a few minutes ago. He was thinking, Six weeks, six whole weeks. He was at an age where six weeks made the difference between one shoe size and another. He was getting taller and broader and all the rest of it … by autumn he’d practically be somebody else. Bodywise, anyway. Yet he’d still be stuck with the same parental bodies, the ones who’d arranged a best friend and auxiliary friends for him. The best friend and the auxiliary friends were no more interested in Xavier than Xavier was in them, but none of them could escape the unfortunate fate of being the offspring of business associates.

By autumn he’d practically be somebody else.

On summer afternoons they roamed the grounds of Disneyland Paris, the Palace of Versailles, or the Jardin du Luxembourg, each member of the group lost in silent and unsmiling thought, the ones who had real friends keeping an eye on their watches so they could dash off as soon as this chore was over. The group was international in appearance and dressed in varying shades of a colour that had been agreed upon the night before, so they looked like a meditative gang or the junior branch of a cult. Other children would approach in twos and threes and shyly ask if they could join. These were the pastimes that would eat up Xavier’s summer weeks, then a few days before he was due to go back to school, his “what I did over the summer” essay would be dictated to him, with the aid of exhibition catalogs from various galleries the Paris parents had visited by themselves. It had been explained that it wasn’t really lying for Xavier to say that he’d gone along to the galleries too, because that definitely would have happened, if not for the fact that mixed in with the masterworks there were many sights that would be detrimental to his moral and emotional development. Xavier guessed that this year he would write that he had been to the Uffizi, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and the Rijksmuseum, and that he would claim he saw paintings of bread, cheese, apples, vases of flowers, and holy families, just like the ones he said he’d seen at the Courtauld Gallery and Sternberg Palace. He’d write the essay without looking at the pages of the book proffered to him: “This one, see?” He didn’t care for paintings of bread, cheese, apples, vases of flowers, and holy families … they made him want to go out and join a crime syndicate. A much less refined gang than the one he was certain the Paris parents were part of. Yet Xavier Shin would take the dictation without changing a word, shaking his head as he did so. Xavier was the type of kid who scored highly in nonverbal reasoning tests. It was too soon for him to claim to know much about life, but he could tell this wasn’t it. Thinking about the six weeks ahead of him, the schoolboy got all jittery about the legs. He was alone in the compartment, so he didn’t have to make a pretence of composure; he could hunch up, hug his kneecaps, and say, Stop it, stop it. But it continued, bone bashing bone, as if his left leg was hell-bent on pulverising his right, and vice versa.

Paintings of bread and holy families made him want to go out and join a crime syndicate.

Xavier told his knees that the people he was living with weren’t that bad. There was that last-minute summer trip he’d taken with the male Paris parent—Xavier had had to go with him because the female Paris parent was away and there was no time to arrange to leave him with anyone. The male Paris parent had received a phone call very early in the morning. He hadn’t said much, only held the phone away from his ear and grimaced as high-decibel howls of hysteria interspersed with heavily accented French ricocheted around the room. A couple of hours later, Xavier and the male Paris parent were on their way to Macao, where they’d taken gondola ride after gondola ride, drifting between the artfully begrimed pillars of a casino’s underground fantasy of Venice. The blue of their gondola was even brighter than the LED sky above, and there were these pastries … little clouds of flaky, butter-fattened flour crowned with silken custard. At some point during the course of these meetings—for it was meetings Xavier’s companion was conducting in these gondolas, the male Paris parent and some third passenger writing out figures on their respective notepads, then either nodding or reaching out to cross out a figure and replace it with a new one more to their liking—the male Paris parent said to Xavier: “This Venice is better than Venice Venice, you know. You have a better time when you’re not expecting anything real. That’s why seriously tacky people manage to enjoy themselves wherever they are.”

You have a better time when you’re not expecting anything real.

There was nothing about the view from their gondola that he didn’t like, so that was how Xavier Shin discovered he was a seriously tacky person. You could wander around Venice Venice during the day, and you could do the same thing at night, but you got more bang for your buck here, because in this cavernous basement it was both day and night. You could see it in the way they were acting, the lovers and the shoppers and the selfie takers and the cocktail-supping bon vivants strolling unhurriedly around this little campo; it was whatever time they wanted it to be. As for the houses that lined the square—they had twice as much personality as they would’ve had if they’d had to choose between a.m. and p.m. The daylight gave the stone facades a feathered glow, and crackles of light from the streetlamps painted thick zigzags of shade over and under the eaves. The combination made the houses look … loud. They seemed inhabited by spirits too high to be contained. You could even fancy that the barcarolles roving across the water originated with the houses, and not some discordant choir of invisible gondoliers (or speakers emitting a looped soundtrack). Xavier wouldn’t really have minded visiting more imitation cities. Disneyland wasn’t the same. There was no amazing aftertaste of citrus-sharp malice after trips to Disneyland, no sense of irreality pouncing upon the real and quite deliberately eating it for breakfast. But the day at the Venetian Macao was a one-off, and he wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about it. Not truthfully, anyway. The official story was that they’d been to Venice Venice. Par for the course, really.

The houses seemed inhabited by spirits too high to be contained.

The Paris parents overwhelmed him with their secrecy. Some of it was absolutely necessary in terms of avoiding prison, but there were too many non-illegal matters that they did their utmost to cover up. Things like having vulgar tastes, or not being happy, or being stressed out. He knew that sooner or later they would make him just like them, hiding things instead of dealing with them. 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 grey, brown, black, and blue as it jogged alongside the train, no longer expanding the horizon but levelling it. It was as if a great rusty zip was closing in all his senses.

From PEACES by Helen Oyeyemi, to be published on April 6, 2021 by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2021 by Helen Oyeyemi

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