Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

“Have you ever had an insultingly easy breakup?…. Just a shrug and a, thanks for the honesty?”

What does it mean to be seen by those you value, and what befalls you when you become invisible to them? Helen Oyeyemi’s Peaces is a skilful and unsettling fable that is difficult to pin down, slowly allowing the existential angst to seep into the reader. Known for brilliant fairy tale recreation that perfectly embodies the genre in a literary sense, here Oyeyemi slips comfortably into train-mystery aesthetic that feel like Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes meets surrealist horror that just so happened to collaborate with Wes Anderson. This is an elusive little tale of Otto and Xavier Shin (and their pet mongoose)on their ‘non-honeymoon honeymoon’ (they legally took the same last name but have declined from being married) in a former tea smuggling train run by a young woman who must prove her sanity on her 30th birthday or lose a vast inheritance as stipulation of a will. The enigmatic nature of her work is the engine driving Peaces, a novel where someone you can’t quite see might be lurking amongst the train passengers who are slowly realizing they have been brought together for nefarious purposes by a common element they can’t quite identify. While one of her more straightforward works, Peaces is a delightfully dark yet comical psychological drama that is still full of unexpected turns and occasionally abstruse misdirections to examine the very essence of enigmatism.

Early in the novel, narrator Otto details the ‘four different philosophies of enjoying’ a marionette show, all of which also make for succinct metaphors of the ways someone would read a novel. There are those ‘whose attention is reserved solely for the actions of the marionette;’ those who look at or for the puppet master; those who watch the faces of the other audience members; and, finally, ‘those who follow the strings and the strings alone.’ Now, as a metaphor for reading, all of these are valuable and it’s worth considering which you are. As a string watcher myself, I found the performance of Peaces highly enjoyable because the way she crafts sentences and sets them on a winding and chaotic path without ever tangling the strings is nearly miraculous to behold.

[W]hen I look at matters in those light…as arrangements rather than relationships, the primary movers starts to look…familiar

This description of attempting to understand the novel’s events also verbalize some of Oyeyemi’s narrative techniques. It is fascinating how she is able to orchestrate the elements of the novel and suddenly reorganize and re-juxtapose them to unveil a different impression of everything like a slight of hand trick. The slightest change in string pulling for the maximum effect.

Oyeyemi’s magic act on the strings makes this a novel that is tough to pin down. Oyeyemi as puppeteer seems to embody this as a major element in her ouveur. Novels like Mr. Fox weave and reinvent themselves metafictionality, her books are populated with shapeshifters, ghosts, and marionettes, her narratives have dual metaphors, etc. All of these nuances create a slippery and shifting landscape of meaning. Her work is often couched in the theories and traditions of fairy tales but set in modern day, such as the gingerbread house of Hansel and Gretel being a factory that makes gingerbread as part of a larger statement on slavery and Brexit in Gingerbread. Here, enigmatism seems to be the primary function of the novel, turning a mirror back onto itself as if attempting the improbable task of understanding something not meant to be fully understood.

What if this longing actually is him, and he was a living, breathing strategy for its fulfilment?

This is a book where practically nothing is clear, and Oyeyemi is frequently refitting images. This is also elaborated in the mysterious passenger Otto can see but can’t focus on (like some weird cousin of the Silence from Doctor Who), or the artworks in the studio car that appear as a blank canvas but when talking about them aloud your words uncontrollably spew out to depict a vivid image the eyes can’t see. Central to this novel is a young man, Přem, whom the inheritress, Ava Kapoor, either cannot physically see or hear him or she has been playing a cruel trick on him for years. Přem is never present through the novel, or is he? Is he pulling the strings here, making the characters all his marionette in power move for the inheritance? Has he entered the lives of each character at some point, yet as a different person for each one, only to inevitably vanish? Is this meant literally or as a personality trope? Do people vanish from our lives or do they actually become unseen? Is this to be understood at face value or a metaphor for the ways we erase a person after a break-up? Pull all social media, lose their number, change your hangouts, extricate each other from your existence. Then there is the questions wheter Kapoor wrote ‘help’ or ‘hello’, and did the man in the burning house tell Otto to ‘save’ his son or ‘stop him?

These questions are the pulse of the novel, and they almost make a point. Which isn’t a failure as much as it is the only logical answer that there is no definite answer and the metaphysical space between the dualities is the essence of what Oyeyemi is trying to focus on. You can almost see it, you are aware it exists, but you can’t ever quite make out it’s features. This is akin to what Thomas Pynchon terms ‘The Zone’ in Gravity’s Rainbow: the space between the binaries of 1 and 0. You can cover it in words and chart it with analysis but still only make out a vague sense of its outline and never the thing-in-and-of-itself if you want to get all Heideggerian about it. Or, like the music from the theremin Kapoor plays, you can hear it but you can’t see it. Without touching the instrument Kapoor makes it play, but still moves her hands like conducting a musical marionette on invisible strings.

This the realm of poetry, perhaps, the abstraction. Personally I find this all rather comforting as a reader, its rejection of ever coming completely together, like that old desktop screensaver where you waited for the bouncing pong ball to perfectly land in the corner of the screen–Oyeyemi refuses to let the ball ever land there like slowly turning the screw of tension and abstract angst. She makes you feel the itch you can’t scratch and live in that moment to explore and reflect on it.This probably sounds in no way appealing but the effortlessness of creating the effect and keeping you engaged is worthy of admiration.

There is a playfulness with the characters that is really charming. Oyeyemi often withholds details about characters until just the right moment where it will refocus your impression of them, such as how Xavier’s description late in the book about first meeting Otto gives you a few tiny details that make you really reexamine his personality. When Xavier mentions he is a frequent liar, you begin to question what you know of the entire novel since it is told to you from Otto’s point of view.

We begin to wonder how much we know of anyone and realize the iceberg theory of writing characters applies to what we know of everyone around us. How does this apply to giving in to love with another, then? Otto takes a stab at this considering his romantic journey with 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…and then, by some stroke of fortune, the gauntlet concludes, the person does exist after all.

Heartbreak, it seems then, is when the other person ends up not existing, or exists as someone else than how you catalogued them in your head. Oyeyemi takes this one step further and asks what if it is you that doesn’t exist. What if the object of your affection cannot see you and you do not know if they chose this or–as is in the novel–quite literally cannot see you. This seems an unbearable burden, to exist in a reality where the stories we live out occur through the intersections and collisions with others but to be unseen and unknown to others. While this is meant as literal to one character, it also serves as a sharp social criticism as the cast are identities who are often unseen by society seeing as they are almost all BIPOC LGBTQIA characters living in Brexit-era Britain.

Art is made of other people.

Peaces is a very funny and wild ride, a cozy mystery. Another one of her books where the title says a lot, has a double meaning. As one should expect with Oyeyemi, there is no stable ground and it is best to just let yourself read it. A recomendation, along with Mr Fox and What is not yours is not yours.

This is a novel where watching the marionettes play out the story is fun, but the real experience is watching the strings pull the act along and discovering that our impressions and emotions are attached to Oyeyemi’s string, making us, the reader, another marionette in her surreal artistic creation.

We see the characters move and react, but we are also on the lookout for the causes that set those reactions in motion – the puppeteer, as it were, and the strings that make the characters dance. The mysterious train setting calls to mind the Orient Express and Darjeeling Limited, works that notoriously traffic in orientalist tropes and white-centered stories. Peaces can be read as a reversal of those narratives, taking familiar thematic cues and toying with our expectations both overtly and in more nuanced ways. I’m not sure the story ultimately hangs together, at least in a conventional sense, or whether the mystery elements have sufficient payoff in the end, but it was a wild ride and a lot of fun.

Peaces is about what it means to be seen by another person–whether it’s your lover or a stranger on a train–and what happens when things you thought were firmly in the past turn out to be right beside you.

“It would appear that Helen Oyeyemi has left me way behind. While I loved her early books, her most recent books, including this one, are just increasingly inaccessible to me. I keep hoping the next will be the one that pulls me back into her work, but I think I just need to move on.” – Anna, Goodreads