It’s been days since I’ve finished Helen Oyeyemi’s newest novel, Peaces (Riverhead Books, 2021), and I’m still trying to process the story I read. While looking for my next book, my hope was to find a whimsical escape from the not-so-whimsical world we’ve been living in the past year and a half. If you’re looking for the same thing, Peaces checks that box and so many more.
While Oyeyemi’s unusual, often non-linear adventure may require some acclimation from readers, her eloquent, witty, and imaginative voice succeeds in constructing her labyrinthine narrative and intriguing characters. Somehow, she is able to communicate Peaces’s undoubtedly abstract themes of perception and memory through intensely colorful, concrete devices. Peaces is a beautifully haphazard collection of some of life’s greatest wonders, including but not limited to: a rich aunt, trains with complicated pasts, theremin music, asphyxiation via emeralds, Czech ex-boyfriends, and no less than two mongooses.
The story opens on the first day of Otto and Xavier Shin’s non-honeymoon honeymoon, as they refer to it– a four day train journey along the “Lakes and Mountains Route,” which you soon learn will feature very few lakes or mountains. Immediately, we are introduced to the book’s central figure, The Lucky Day, a possibly magical former tea-smuggling train that functions as both a setting and character. Save for flashbacks and backstories, the first half of Peaces is surprisingly slow burning and uneventful. We gradually get to know The Lucky Day’s permanent residents– a quirky, all-female trio: Laura De Souza, a French-Canadian drifter, Allegra Yu, the train’s fashionable part-time operator, and Ava Kapoor, an enigmatic musician and member of the so-called Empty Room Club. Together, these passengers work to understand the significance of their individual paths and why they happened to cross onboard The Lucky Day.
As a reader, you’re often kept in the dark, but that’s half the fun. The best way to read this story is with no expectations and one of Laura’s first lines kept in mind: “Things always take some kind of crazy turn when you say ‘definitely.'”
While it may take another few days of contemplation (and possibly another reading) to fully appreciate Oyeyemi’s wild train ride, I‘m certain that most readers would agree Peaces is memorable, pleasantly far-fetched, and almost violently thought-provoking.
Peaces is available through Penguin Random House.
Alexa White is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the city where she grew up, and is pursuing a BA in Creative Writing with a Studio Art minor. She has enjoyed reading and writing, especially poetry, for most of her life and has had both art and poetry published in UTK’s Phoenix literary magazine.
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