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Helen Oyeyemi’s unsettling new novel Peaces starts weird and gets weirder

The book features a whimsical train, two pet mongooses, and existential dread.

The cover of the novel “Peaces” by Helen Oyeyemi and a picture of the writer.
Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi.
Left, Tereza Linhartova. Right, Riverhead Books.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Truly, God bless Helen Oyeyemi. She started her career in 2005 writing books that were already pretty weird, and in the years since, her books have only gotten steadily weirder. And her latest novel, Peaces, is very very weird.

Oyeyemi often plays with fairy tales, smashing them into fragments and gluing them back together in disturbing and vicious new configurations. But Peaces, which takes place on a moving train and features two pet mongooses, is less a fragmented fairy tale than it is a riff on the kind of cozy middle-grade children’s literature where kids are always running off on enchanted vehicles of some sort to have a series of magical adventures. The Phantom Tollbooth, maybe, or Lev Grossman’s recent magic train book, The Silver Arrow. (Other critics have pegged Agatha Christie as Oyeyemi’s source on this one, but train aside, there’s very little linking this book to Christie’s murder mysteries.)

But just because Oyeyemi’s source genre is cozy doesn’t mean the things she does with it are. This is a playful book, but it’s also a profoundly unsettling one.

Peaces tells the story of lovers Otto and Xander, who have been gifted with train tickets to an unknown destination by a wealthy aunt for a “non-honeymoon honeymoon.” Together with their pet mongoose, Árpád, they board The Lucky Day, a train Wes Anderson might have rejected for being too whimsical. The Lucky Day was once used for smuggling tea, but now it features a library car, a sauna car, and a greenhouse car, along with various and sundry dark mysteries.

Almost as soon as they board The Lucky Day, Otto and Xander catch a glimpse of “the resident”: Ava Kapoor, the mysterious woman said to live on the train. She’s carrying a sign that might say “hello” — but then again, it might also say “help.”

Otto and Xander will have to figure out what exactly the sign says, and how best to respond in either case. But they’re in no particular hurry to do so, and they take their time leading us through a series of slowly unwinding reminiscences that appear at first to be only loosely connected to the task of finding and either greeting or helping Ava Kapoor.

Peaces moves slowly. But for the reader who might be tempted to find this lack of narrative urgency frustrating, Oyeyemi offers an illustrative fable in the book’s first few pages. She describes the audience at a marionette show, where there are four different ways of enjoying the performance — all of which map neatly onto different ways of reading a book.

You can pay attention to the actions of the marionette, trying to believe it is a living thing. (Poor Ava Kapoor! I hope she’s all right.) You can try to look for the puppet master. (What is Helen Oyeyemi up to this time?) You can watch the faces of your fellow audience members (and this one might be you, as you’re reading this book review). Or you might be the sort of person who watches the marionette strings.

For such a person, Oyeyemi writes, the strings “express something to her, something about the nature of the illusion before her.” As dull as a marionette show might get, the string-watcher never stops watching, trying and trying to “pursue the strings to their vanishing point.”

Otto, who narrates Peaces and is a hypnotist, finds the string-watchers of the world frustrating. He hypnotizes his clients by boring them into submission — but string-watchers, as bored as they might get, will never quite allow themselves to relax into a hypnotic trance. They are too focused on watching the play of the strings.

Watching the strings while reading a Helen Oyeyemi book means watching the sentences, which are glorious. Her descriptions of The Lucky Day’s whimsical cars fairly drip off the page, like honey: In the library car, there’s a “double bed-sized fainting couch upholstered in brocade the color of Darjeeling tea in the fourth minute of brewing”; mysterious music that floats across the train sounds “very, very like a human voice, airily blurring notes with the skill of an operatic coloratura, but” with a tone that is “thinner than any oxygen-dependent organism could accomplish without asphyxiating.”

And in time, Oyeyemi’s sentences lead us to an organizing premise of sorts. Every person on The Lucky Day — and there are five in total, including two mysterious figures Otto and Xander encounter on their meandering quest to reach Ava Kapoor — recalls meeting a man who seems to have gone out of his way to be exactly the thing they wanted in their lives at that moment in time. And then, strangely, that man seems to have vanished from their lives without a trace. Could he have been the same man every time?

As mysteries go, this one seems a little incoherent. But Oyeyemi imbues it with a creeping existential dread: a horror at the idea of this disappearance, at making yourself into exactly what someone wants, abasing yourself for them, groveling at their feet — and then becoming unseen. Becoming someone who is lifted neatly out of the life of a person you devoted yourself to, until it’s as though you never existed at all. For lovers on a not-honeymoon-honeymoon, what prospect could be more horrifying?

That dread animates Peaces’ unnerving second half, as it veers away from its cozy train car whimsy and into a darker and more frightening emotional landscape. And when it ends, it does so without a true resolution: All has been explained, but there is no real sense of closure.

If you are reading Peaces as a watcher of the marionette and its actions, as someone who wants to believe in a novel’s characters as psychologically real human beings, you will find it a frustrating experience. Oyeyemi, like Otto the hypnotist, will go out of her way to try to bore you into submission: She has no interest in imagining or depicting conventional psychological coherence.

But any of the other three marionette show watchers Oyeyemi describes are in for a ride. If you are interested in the puppet master, Peaces will let you watch Oyeyemi develop a playful flippancy that is new to her tool kit. If you are interested in watching the rest of the audience, this will be a fun book to watch other people try to talk about, in the same way it is fun to watch people try to talk about the works of David Lynch. And if you are a watcher of strings — well, Oyeyemi has provided quite a set of strings to track, even if she persists in frustrating all our wishes for resolution as Peaces comes to a close.

So as the novel ends, the marionette show draws its curtains. But we’re still left watching the strings in vain, waiting and waiting to find their source point.