Yeah… I have no idea how to properly review this book. I’m not even sure I 100% understood it, to be honest. All I can say is I will do my best.
When Otto and Xavier take a non-honeymoon honeymoon on a train called The Lucky Day to celebrate the fact they have decided to share a last name without actually being married, things take a turn for the odd. The two board the train with their pet mongoose, Arpad Montague XXX. On board the train bound for an undisclosed location, they meet the eccentric owner of the train, Ava Kapoor, and the fairly odd people with whom she keeps acquaintance. Oh, and Ava also has a pet mongoose. Doesn’t everyone? They find out over the course of the journey that Ava is set to come into a large inheritance if she can merely prove that she is sane upon reaching her thirtieth birthday. Doesn’t seem like it would be too difficult a task for most people, but Ava claims never to have actually seen a pivotal character who does actually exist and has been seen by everyone else. No one really knows whether she actually can’t see him or whether she has been playing a cruel and elaborate joke on him. When this character begins appearing on the train to threaten her inheritance, things get interesting.
This book is outlandish. In some ways, it’s outlandish in a good way, but it also lost me more than a few times. I loved the ambiance. Despite being a modern tale, it has the feel of a classic Agatha Christie mystery, complete with a train that exists as a character in and of itself. It’s complete with its own post office, dining car, and even a bazaar where one can find the most eclectic of items for purchase from equally eclectic merchants. I love books where the setting takes on a life of its own, and we’re introduced to it in the same way we would be a character. I think it takes a lot of skill to do that as a writer, and Oyeyemi is definitely a gifted writer. Her prose is extremely pleasant to read, and it’s full of extremely profound and beautiful passages that stop you in your tracks.
I enjoyed the characters, especially Otto and Xavier (pronounced Sah-vee-ay in the audiobook version.) Even peripheral characters, of equal importance in this story, were extremely vivid and well drawn. Character is a driving force of her novel, but there’s something very fluid about character as well. Ultimately, this is a novel about being seen by those in our lives in a conceptual sense. She presents this as a literal act of being seen, but as the reader we are to view this in the metaphorical sense instead. What is it like when people in our lives transition from being before our eyes, held in high esteem, to moving to the background as a mere shade of memory in the backs of our mind? We no longer see them. They cease to exist in a real tangible sense, and psychologically that has an impact on all parties involved.
Of course, all of this Oyeyemi throws at us in an extremely jumbled fashion that leaves us with more questions than answers. There were several characters in this book that were, perhaps, one character seen by each of our main characters in a different way, so they therefore took on a different form in the eye of the beholder. In one case, Xavier had encountered this man two different times in his life and referred to him as two different people, but in his mind he understood him to be the same person. He looked and acted differently, as Xavier’s perception of him had changed so he therefore took on a different identity as perceived by Xavier. Are you confused by this? I would agree. I’m still a bit confused, to be honest, but I also feel like it’s a pretty brilliant concept that is beginning to make sense.
Our main narrator, Otto, is presented as someone we like very much. He’s charming and witty, and we enjoy seeing things through his eyes. However, when Xavier gets a chance to have a say, we find out that Otto is a compulsive liar, which then throws literally everything we learned into doubt. If he’s an unreliable narrator, can we trust anything that we’ve learned thus far? I mean, most of it is so unbelievable that’s it’s easy to doubt all of it. Perhaps what Oyeyemi is really trying to tell us that nothing really is surreal, but our brains as an interpretive force are unreliable, so the world becomes surreal around us simply in our processing of information. It’s a conundrum.
Our modern action was disrupted from time to time by short vignettes of past experiences. Oyeyemi flowed into these stories in a wave-like fashion, fluidly transitioning into them before gently pulling the reader back. Each of these stories provided a little context that allowed us to better understand the characters and their various connections to one another. This is where I become a bit torn with this book. I understand what Oyeyemi was trying to do, but I felt like there was a bit much to take in. If attempting to interpret this book gives you a headache, it ceases to become pleasant. That being said, there’s a small sector of the population who positively love that kind of challenge, and they are the ones who give 5 stars to this book. To each their own.
The pacing of this novel was quite good except at the very end. It’s a short novel, and a lot happens over the course of the book. At the very end, it surges forward at an incredibly rapid pace, as if the train has picked up speed way too close to the station and threatens to overtake it without stopping to let us off. And that left me a bit confused once again, because I’m not entirely sure what actually happened or why. Overall, I have very mixed feelings about the book. I did enjoy the ride, however, so I’m going to give it a 3 1/2.
Published April 6 2021 by Penguin Audio. ISBN 9780593394564. Runtime 7 hrs 50 mins.