My first introduction to Helen Oyeyemi’s work was her story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, and I found it curious and unlike anything else I had read up to that point. Her following two novels Boy, Snow, Bird and Gingerbread are similar in their fantasticism, but it’s her newest novel Peaces that has fully captured my attention. Delightfully weird and deliciously eccentric, Peaces is a story about love and companionship, the past and… mongooses?
Otto and Xavier Shin have been gifted an adventure by an aunt: a ride on a train called The Lucky Day in celebration of their love for one another. “A non-honeymoon honeymoon,” Otto calls it. The train has a reputation for being somewhat of a legend, complete with an inhabitant, Ava Kapoor, rumored to never leave the train. The further the train travels, and the more mysteries uncovered, questions arise and few answers can be found. Are they prisoners or guests on the train? Who is Ava Kapoor, and is there an ulterior motive from Xavier’s aunt in gifting them this ride?
When I started reading, I found myself quite lost and without solid footing in the plotlines. My advice for readers is: like any train ride, let it take you where it wants to go. The structure of the novel definitely mirrors a meandering train track, but always with purpose and forward momentum. The sentences themselves are delightful puzzles to solve as they unfold, and I argue it’s worth the patience to see how paragraphs build. As Otto and Xavier settle into their cabin at the onset of the trip, we are dipped into our first story-within-a-story. It unfolds slowly, satisfyingly, and it’s not until the very end that we discover how it ties into the main storyline. The anticipation is much like boarding a train without a set destination and being rewarded for your trust.
The nesting doll construction continues throughout the novel in various forms, such as oral stories, letters found in the mail car, and diary entries. Weaving in and out of stories told by the characters in Peaces conveys a feeling similar to a fever dream; and as Otto and Xavier stumble upon other dizzying curiosities of the train – a greenhouse car, a portrait whose gaze follows you, a sauna car – they discover more clues as to what has been tying them together. For some readers this level of confusion might become frustrating, but for others, the temptation for a reveal will keep the pages turning.
There are both tender and tense moments. Oyeyemi’s choice to have Otto narrate the story seems fitting, as we’re able to hear the sarcasm, wit, and loftiness of his voice, even as it’s clear he is confused or frightened by the happenings on the train. His love for Xavier is palpable, and his unreliability as a narrator makes the strange, hazy-faced man who attacks him and then ultimately jumps off the train a questionable reality. Otto, who is a self-proclaimed hypnotist, is the type of narrator who you both care for and mistrust in equal measures. The whole novel is quite unnerving, and it’s due in large part to Oyeyemi’s choice to conceal the truth, to keep you interested, eager to figure out the mystery.
The heart of the book is about understanding and being understood. What does it mean to be seen by someone who loves you, by someone who has cared for you? How are individuals linked to one another, as Otto is linked to Ava, and Xavier to another passenger, and so on and so forth? How long is one willing to wait for justice?
As with most of Oyeyemi’s books, she asks you to have confidence in her craft and follow her through to the end. The conclusion especially picks up pace, like a speeding train taking curves much too quickly, the scenery out the window changing as drastically as the events upon the page. In the end, there are a few disjointed events and surprise appearances, but what else would one expect on such an extraordinary journey?
By Helen Oyeyemi
Published April 06, 2021