Peaces, Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead 978-0-593-19233-7, $27.00, 272pp, hc) April 2021.
Peaces is my second encounter with Helen Oyeyemi’s work. The first book of hers I read was 2016’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a collection of stories that Kirstyn McDermott and I discuss at length on The Writer and The Critic podcast. I found reading the collection to be an invigorating experience, inspired by Oyeyemi’s embrace of the strange and the fantastic; her playful approach to story-telling and her precise use of language and technique (the final story in What Is Not Your Is Not Yours, as Kirstyn notes on the podcast, is a near-perfect example of second-person perspective). To one degree or another, all of this is present in Peaces, a short, beguiling, and outlandish story about the inner turmoil that comes with not being seen, both figuratively and literally.
Peaces begins with a couple and their pet mongoose about to board a train. The couple, Otto and Xavier, have recently shared their names via deed poll (rather than get married) and are now embarking on their non-honeymoon honeymoon. The mongoose is Arpad XXX, the latest in a two-hundred-year lineage of mongooses dating back to the first Arpad who saved the life of Otto’s grand-father when he was a child. The train is The Lucky Day, a “seafaring creature” of a locomotive, bearing its “name like a diadem, scarlet letters dancing along a ruby red band set just above the window of the driver’s cabin.” Otto and Xavier are The Lucky Day’s only paying passengers for the next four days, a gift from Xavier’s Aunty Shin Do Yeon. They have no idea where the train will take them, but the couple is aware that, driver and engineer aside, they won’t entirely be alone. The Lucky Day has one other full-time inhabitant, the enigmatic Ava Kapoor.
The novel’s epigraph, and inspiration for its title, is Emily Dickinson’s poem “I many times thought Peace had come”. It’s a melancholy verse that compares the likelihood of finding solace and happiness to a shipwrecked sailor discovering land “At Centre of the Sea”. The poem’s sentiment describes Otto’s state of mind when he boards the train. He wants to believe he has found contentment in his relationship with Xavier, but the fact his partner only commits to sharing names, and not marriage, has Otto wondering whether his happiness is a “fictitious shore”. Their honeymoon (non-honeymoon) is not only an opportunity for the couple to grow closer but for Otto to be truly seen by Xavier. And yet, it’s not long before Otto is sidelined in his own narrative, acting as a conduit for a much larger mystery involving Ava Kapoor. Drawn to Ava’s cabin by the sound of her theremin, Otto is told a fantastic tale of a piece of music Ava is commissioned to play by its composer, Karel Stojaspal, to an empty bedroom. We later learn that the bedroom was not empty, that Ava was playing her theremin for Karel’s son, Premysl, who she literally could not see. The story, told as a series of recollections and flashbacks all conveyed to Otto, is an attempt to piece together (yes, the title is also a play on words) the question of Prem’s existence, why he seems familiar to Otto and Xavier, and how all this relates to Ava inheriting Karel’s fortune following the composer’s death.
Premysl’s shape-shifting identity, his method of inveigling his way into the lives of everyone on board, except for the one person he’s desperate to notice him, is only one aspect to this delightfully weird novel. There’s also the remarkable locomotive that transports our characters. In an interview for Hazlitt back in 2019, Oyeyemi explained that when writing a novel, “I don’t think about place too much. Place is very abstract.” That approach is evident with The Lucky Day. From the moment the train is introduced – “sleek scrolls of silvered metal flickered and twisted… along its long low body” – it has a very concrete presence. As Otto explores the interior, there are loving, vibrant descriptions of each car, including the Library (with its “framed photographs of reading rooms in nine libraries”), the Greenhouse (“where [Otto] walked under a green-veined glass roof”), and the Portrait Gallery where two blank canvases, or “paint-less paintings” made by Prem, impossibly depict Ava playing her theremin. But the carriages and what’s inside them also add to the abstract quality of The Lucky Day. While they’re not impossible places, there’s something very TARDIS-like about them, a distinct feeling that the locomotive is far bigger and more capacious than it could possibly be. Abstractness aside, it’s clear that Oyeyemi enjoyed creating this impossibly strange but wonderful environment.
There is so much packed into Peaces for such a short novel, so much that is beautiful and bewildering. The abrupt ending, almost perfunctory in how quickly it comes and goes, is my only quibble. I could have easily spent another fifty or more pages with Oyeyemi’s eccentric cast of characters and their adventures on the magnificent The Lucky Day.
This review and more like it in the April 2021 issue of Locus.
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