by Helen Oyeyemi
reviewed by Chelsea Bingham
Helen Oyeyemi’s seventh novel, Peaces, is a nonsensical Wonderland of a love story, delivered in the familiar package of a train whodunnit. At its outset, Otto and Xavier Shin—and Árpád XXX, Otto’s mongoose—board “The Lucky Day” for their “non-honeymoon honeymoon.” Their ride on this former tea-smuggling train was a gift, and they know only that they are to follow “The Lakes and Mountains Route” after departing from their local station in Kent. What lies ahead is less Disney and more Grimm, a modern love story that feels as real as it does surreal.
On this first trip under their shared surname, Otto muses on the path to finding Xavier:
You run the romantic gauntlet for decades without knowing who exactly it is you’re giving and taking such a battering in order to reach. You run the gauntlet without knowing whether the person whose favour you seek will even be there once you somehow put that path strewn with sensory confetti and emotional gore behind you. And then, by some stroke of fortune, the gauntlet concludes, the person does exist after all, and you become that perpetually astonished lover from so many of the songs you used to find endlessly disingenuous.
The name of the train is not coincidental—the trip on The Lucky Day affirms just how lucky Otto and Xavier are to have found one another. Their current happiness will be contrasted with their past loves and lovers, many of whom may still be haunting them, the “sensory confetti and emotional gore” not as far behind as they might have hoped. The rest of the train’s passengers, too, are haunted by their shared histories, of which we learn through their communications and miscommunications: letters, emails, and vignettes that show that even in the happiest of relationships, secrets remain. Not everything has to be shared, and nobody is completely knowable. Perhaps that’s for the best.
As the dynamic between the two men unfolds, a mystery unravels. Xavier sees a woman in another carriage holding a sign that says either “help” or “hello.” He suspects that it’s Ava Kapoor, the twenty-nine-year-old resident and owner of the train. Otto obsesses over whether she’s a Miss Havisham type and “in possession of all her marbles”—as he sees it, women who elect to live alone are not to be trusted. The two men begin a mission to find her, and their investigations reveal the eccentricities of the train: a car with furniture on the ceiling, a greenhouse, a library, a sauna, a portrait gallery, a postal-sorting carriage, a dormitory carriage, and more. It’s a bit like falling down a rabbit hole, but one in which you can stumble into a train car containing everything you need to make your favorite breakfast.
Otto’s preoccupation is prescient: Ava’s sanity (or lack thereof) is the point on which an inheritance hinges. On her thirtieth birthday, she must be deemed of sound mind in order to receive a large sum of money from her former employer. The ease with which a cry for help could instead be a benign greeting demonstrates the thin line dividing sanity and madness in the novel, and the ease of interpersonal misunderstanding. In fact, the men are forbidden from speaking to Ava by Allegra, one of the train’s other permanent passengers: “talking to strangers can be riskier than it is rewarding; even people who know each other well talk at cross purposes and derange each other’s perceptions.” To safeguard Ava’s sanity, she’s kept isolated on the train in a world of her own making. “Sanity and consistency of perception are the same thing?” Xavier asks. “Of course it is,” Allegra replies.
While there may be a collective delusion taking place on the train, the passengers themselves are not delusional. They seem all too willing to fess up to their shortcomings, and to acknowledge and accept the shortcomings of their partners and friends. Otto says of himself, “I no longer had the energy to keep lying, even though I knew that lying would set us free faster than any truth would.” (In typical Oyeyemi fashion, it isn’t the truth that sets one free, but the opposite.) Xavier is aware of this quality in his partner, writing in one of his recollections, “You’d be stupid to take anything Otto Shin says at face value. My life partner lies. A lot. I confront him over it as often as I can.” While he uses the word “confront,” there’s a sense of affection and acceptance behind the words, like it’s an amusing characteristic, rather than a threat to the relationship. He recalls Otto claiming that “lying is probably the most human gesture anyone can make,” because humans “all say one thing and do another. Every one of them.” Xavier concedes, if not to Otto, to himself: “I’ve also noticed that lying to Otto, just a bit, at random intervals, tends to bring out the best in him.” If “sanity and consistency of perception are the same thing,” then lying is the glue that holds them together.
Peaces is often disorienting. An absurdist meditation on relationships, identity, and sanity, it is compellingly written and worth reading based on the wide-ranging cultural, literary, and musical references alone. However, the plot is at times hard to follow. Mysteries are revealed in pieces, patched together from the memories of multiple characters, none of whom are entirely trustworthy. Despite this, every line feels purposeful, and the occasional confusion begins to seem deliberate once the rhythm of the narrative becomes clearer.
The novel opens with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson that begins, “I many times thought peace had come, / When peace was far away.” In naming the book Peaces, Oyeyemi makes the case that peace is not a permanent state of being. It comes and goes and requires maintenance. So does love, sanity, and a sense of self. In fits and starts, the characters in this novel seem to find their equilibrium between extremes, and eventually make their peace with it.
Published on August 13, 2021