Reading Helen Oyeyemi's Peaces is like walking into a bizarre interstitial space between a surrealist narrative populated by mongooses and strange characters and the realm of classic Agatha Christie-esque mysteries that take place on trains to undisclosed locations. If that doesn't make much sense, you're beginning to get an idea of what this novel is like.
When Otto Shin takes on his boyfriend Xavier's last name, Xavier's aging aunt gifts them train tickets to an unknown destination so they can celebrate their "non-honeymoon honeymoon" along with their pet mongoose, Árpád Montague XXX. Soon after their journey begins aboard The Lucky Day — a former tea-smuggling train — the couple meets Ava Kapoor, the puzzling owner of the train, and her harsh, controlling assistant. Ava is going to get a substantial inheritance soon, but a strange passenger that everyone seems to have met before threatens the inheritance.
Meanwhile, Yuri, Xavier's ex-boyfriend, shows up at the aunt's house with a secret agenda, which Otto and Xavier try to put together via the few calls and text messages Xavier manages to make and receive from her. Before anyone finds answers to anything around them, Otto, Xavier, and Ava will remember stories from their past, read letters, and have various discussions that illuminate who they are while slowly revealing how they're all tied to the enigmatic stranger who threatens Ava's bequest.
Peaces is a humorous mystery about too many things. At its core is Oyeyemi's brilliant prose, which is the only constant and quickly emerges as the main reason to keep reading when things get weird. Her voice and wit shine in the dialogue as well as the descriptions, events, letters, and literary curlicues that adorn the novel. Questions almost always lead to stories and most descriptions weave in and out of the characters' past and present in unpredictable ways that enrich our knowledge of who they are. For example, Otto looks at Xavier's hand, which opens a window into Xavier's life, interests, talents, and Otto's love for his boyfriend:
His is the hand of a sea swimmer; in water it becomes a broad bladed oar. That same hand is a hardy aid to him as a once-a-week football goalie more enthusiastic than he is adept, and it's the fine-fingered hand the needle glitters from as it sews all the buttons back onto our shirts. This is only the preface to the prologue of the dossier on Xavier Shin's hands. For the rest, see Puccini's "O dolci mani."
For every hint or answer, Oyeyemi adds three questions. While the every-growing list of characters and uncertainties keeps the pages turning, the many branches that sprout rhizomatically from the story's center eventually overpower everything else. The characters are funny and likeable, the descriptions superb, and the dialogue hilarious, but the way the tale moves between past and present and the many memories that pop up soon become distracting and make for a disjointed read.
For example, there's a chronicle about one of Xavier's early trips in which he was threatened at gunpoint and forced to help a French woman named Louise Hébert North tie up Eddy De Souza, the American Go Champion. The event soon became a "woman-with-a-gun-swallowing-stones situation." Oyeyemi uses the mayhem to explore the characters' shared past and how Xavier played a role in their reencounter, but the scene feels like a too-long deviation from the narrative at hand. As De Souza states, "Who cares about that bar in Montmartre where the pianist has his newspaper set up in front of him in place of a music score and all the regulars know to leave the street door open so the breeze can turn the pages for him; you'd better just care about that sort of thing on your own, that's what my daughter says."
Oyeyemi is a gifted writer with a penchant for the outlandish, so Peaces remains engaging whether she's talking about a woman choking on emeralds in her sleep, describing the family tree of a mongoose, or when Otto and Xavier look at a blank canvas only to discover that the former sees Ava "layered on top with this downright exuberant finger-painted effect, playing an invisible theremin" and the latter sees "a gamine brown woman with an ecstatic smile and her hands in the air like she's conducting a chorus of angels and they sound so good she's dropped her baton." But it's also fragmented and at times confusing, and not in the best way.
Ultimately, Oyeyemi's storytelling skills, keen observations, and the beautiful way in which she crafts unique, uncanny characters save this from being a befuddling mystery with too much going on. However, readers should be aware of the story's rambling nature and disconcerting zigzags before delving into its many mysteries.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.