Surreal adventures abound in transporting novel ‘Peaces’

Onboard a mysterious sleeper train with no destination, a young couple discovers it can be hard to separate the surreal from the real.

Riverhead Books
“Peaces” by Helen Oyeyemi, Riverhead Books, 256 pp.

Helen Oyeyemi’s weird and wonderful new novel, “Peaces,” unwinds a story that illumines the ways that past experiences continue to impose upon the present, shaping what each of us accepts as reality.

The story begins with Otto and Xavier Shin as they embark upon an adventure aboard The Lucky Day, a luxurious sleeper train built as a tea-smuggling caravan for an earlier era. Curiously, it appears they are the only passengers on board. As they investigate the other carriages, they discover a mystifying art gallery, a kitchen curiously stocked with their favorite foods, a sauna – certainly not the usual trappings of a passenger train. 

While exploring, Otto also catches a glimpse of a furtive woman, or at least he thinks he did. He believes she was holding a sign that read “Hello” or maybe it said, “Help.” He’s really not sure. Perplexed, he also isn’t sure whether he should try and find her. Does she need help? Did he just imagine her?

And then there is the curious matter of their destination. Their tickets simply say, “The Lakes and Mountains Route” with no mention of towns or even which country they might be traveling through. The trip had been a gift to the couple from Otto’s aunt, a kind of non-honeymoon honeymoon, but they can’t call her to inquire – there is no cell service.

Instead, the two surrender to their circumstances and set off on an experience that takes them to places they never imagined. 

They eventually meet their host, a woman named Ava Kapoor. It appears the train is her home, or more accurately, her refuge. They learn that she was once a music scholar who had dreamed of a career playing the theremin. While that life never materialized, her experiences playing the unusual instrument did lead her to her current life. She explains, “Most of the time it’s as if my life is hiding from me, but as I play, note by note, I echolocate it.” 

It seems her focus right now is a pending will, one to which Ms. Kapoor is the sole beneficiary. First, though, she must prove herself to be of “wholly sound mind on her thirtieth birthday,” a date that is fast approaching. And, to their surprise, Otto and Xavier discover they are among the people who have a role in determining her sanity. 

It seems the determination of sanity and the resolution of the will hinges upon each person’s perceptions of people and of past events. The process exposes their own earlier experiences, some of them shared, ones they each thought they had left behind. The task begs the question of what determines whose version is legitimate? Who determines sanity or, even, reality? Baffled, Xavier asks, “Sanity and consistency of perception are the same thing?” 

It is fair to say this book will not appeal to everyone. Some readers might be put off by the manner in which the story wanders through a string of seemingly nonsensical experiences that evoke many unanswered questions. Be aware, too, of the coarse language sprinkled throughout. In the hands of a less talented writer, it all might seem like a surreal soup of imaginings. 

But Oyeyemi skillfully crafts a most creative story that evokes life’s deeper questions. She infuses the tale with references to music, photography, and painting, and with cultural touch points as seemingly random as the Brontë Sisters, the Beach Boys, and Converse sneakers. Her fanciful descriptions include such details as a couch upholstered in “brocade the colour of Darjeeling tea in the fourth minute of brewing.” 

In the midst of this delightful concoction, she examines the enduring power of experiences and the impressions that we make upon one another. Through the seemingly random adventures of Otto and Xavier, she illuminates how past experiences seldom remain in the past. They become part of who we are in the present and, to look upon the union of the two protagonists, part of what binds us to one another.  

For those willing to let go and follow this story wherever it leads, floating through the parts that appear without explanation, stringing together details as they are revealed, the reward will be worth the adventure. 

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