Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

For this review I created a new tag, Oyeyemi, to represent my continuing confusion about how to categorize her mysterious novels. I was tempted to call it ‘mystery’ but I’ll settle for ‘puzzle,’ with suspense and speculative elements, a contemporary/magical setting and absolutely its own set of rules. My enjoyment outweighed my bemusement – not that the latter prevents the former but it can make it a little harder. I am charmed and perplexed. I’ll do my best here.

Our narrator for most of the novel is Otto. He’s on a train with his partner Xavier. They are taking a honeymoon but not really because they are not married. They are traveling with their pet mongoose, Árpád XXX (as in the roman numerals), who is descended from a long line of mongooses called Árpád who have been companions to Otto’s family. The train is a former tea smuggling train with a most unusual full-time resident, its owner, Ava Kapoor, who receives copious hate mail for her family’s past crimes. She is an heiress set to inherit under unusual terms which have led her to live on her train, served by a staff consisting of her girlfriend and a sterner woman with more sinister outside employment… She also keeps a pet mongoose (naturally?!) and plays a theremin. So far I’m just listing weird elements, right? That’s part of the point. There are invisible people, or people who may or may not actually exist, and who may or may not be the same person. And it is on this weird train – whose most unusual cars possess (of course) strange traits – that the partnered Otto and Xavier discover they may have some history in common that they didn’t know about, not only with each other but with Ava Kapoor.

It was a raucous adventure and a puzzle whose solution I’m still not sure of. I enjoyed the locked-room aspect of the train as setting (very Agatha Christie), and the mongooses, and the eccentric old aunt character (who sends our non-honeymooners on their trip), and the questions about art and pursuing one’s creative processes. It is, I think, about that concept of “being seen.” I am all the way off balance about the whole thing but still intrigued by Helen Oyeyemi’s singular mind. I don’t know what to tell you at all; your mileage may vary.


Rating: 8 letters.

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