A number of years ago, I read a book called The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers). It was a wild ride of a book, full of twists and turns, questions and often fruitless interrogations, more game with the reader than traditional reading experience. I finished this book and the friend who was with me at the time asked how it was. I said, with great puzzlement, that I didn’t know what happened in the end. My friend assumed I didn’t like it. I said I didn’t know that either. Three days later, I decided it was genius.
Reading Peaces, Helen Oyeyemi’s newest novel, reminds me of reading The Rabbit Back Literature Society. An omnipresent but missing character, a series of questions answered by nothing more than more questions, a slow but not complete coalescing of patterns. But it’s been more than three days since I finished Peaces, and despite my expansive love for Oyeyemi’s work, I don’t think this one is quite genius.
Otto and Xavier Shin, utterly charming thirtysomethings, have recently decided to consummate their love, not with sex (that’s been going on for some time now) or marriage (who needs that?), but with Otto taking Xavier’s last name. In celebration, Xavier’s eccentric aunt gifts them with a “non-honeymoon honeymoon,” a trip on The Lucky Day, a former tea smuggling train. The train is a curiosity, full of strange cars (a mail car, a sauna car) still in use, even though only five people and two mongooses appear to be on board. In the jumble of exploring the train and glimpsing a woman who is either saying hello or asking for help, Otto, Xavier, and pet mongoose Árpád find their cabin, but leave Otto’s suitcase behind on the station platform. The trip isn’t long enough for this to really matter, and Xavier’s seemingly close enough in size—though much is made of Otto’s days of the week boxers.
Oyeyemi’s prose is pure Oyeyemi: peerless in its craft, its trademark insight on brilliant display, with the addition of a heretofore unknown wit.
As Otto and Xavier’s trip begins—and as our trip as readers begins—things are delightful. Otto and Xavier are both singularly likeable: kind, self-aware, somewhat unreliable, hilarious. Oyeyemi’s prose is pure Oyeyemi: peerless in its craft, its trademark insight on brilliant display, with the addition of a heretofore unknown wit. When you have no idea what’s going on in this book—and that will happen several times over—Oyeyemi’s gorgeous, unexpected turn of phrase has more than enough magnetic pull to keep you on track.
As we spend more time on the train, though, things get weird. Your brain is going to want to turn this into an Agatha Christie-esque mystery, and while Oyeyemi presents a mystery, it’s neither the one you think it is, nor is there a dead body. Let’s recalibrate your brain. Oyeyemi is far too much her own force to pay such direct homage to Christie.
As Peaces rolls on, Oyeyemi reveals that the five people on the train—Otto, Xavier, Ava Kapoor (owner of the train and Xavier’s aunt’s friend), Allegra Yu (Ava’s lover), and Laura De Souza (a mysterious agent on behalf of someone with a financial interest in Ava)—all intersect, with ties both expected and inexorable. And through stories and epistles, snippets of information and paintings that reveal themselves differently to each viewer, Oyeyemi also reveals that all five people on the train know—or mysteriously, know of—a sixth character, Premysl Stojaspal, even if they don’t know Prem by name.
While Oyeyemi’s brilliant fabulism pervades Peaces, perhaps even more than it did What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours or Gingerbread, Prem is where that fabulism really comes into play, with shifting identities, cryptic encounters, a burning building, a theremin, a second mongoose, and oh, the fact that Ava Kapoor cannot seem to see Prem, even though everyone else can. This befuddles everyone else, and infuriates Prem, though Ava, without questioning the presence or realness of Prem, seems to take this largely in stride.
What does it mean when the person you most want to perceive you…simply doesn’t?
And in all the muddle of Peaces—Otto and Xavier’s seemingly shared former lover, the man who jumped from the moving train or perhaps never existed at all, the destruction of the dining car with French toast, and more—the crux of Oyeyemi’s work might be this: What does it mean when the person you most want to perceive you…simply doesn’t? When you want so badly to be seen, but you aren’t, at least not by the person who most matters? What does that failure do to your existence?
In the end, I found Oyeyemi’s central theme fascinating, her approach equally so. But while I think she ties her pieces together in the end—why these five people are on this train at this time—through her enigmatic sixth character, I didn’t find that she quite had enough pieces. Part of a jigsaw puzzle, but not the whole. With Oyeyemi, though, maybe that doesn’t matter as much. Her work is always somewhere on the continuum of thought experiment and adventure, and her prose always ushers you through, unwavering in its blazing magnificence, a gorgeous train barreling its way to a point unknown.
Before each conference, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy and other interesting books by women, nonbinary, and trans authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and ten years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.