Readers of Helen Oyeyemi’s latest mind-teaser will know they’re in for an unusual experience when the novel’s narrator, a 38-year-old hypnotist, begins the story by describing a set of Czech days-of-the-week underwear, a gift from a former boyfriend. And that’s before the narrator boards a train for a “non-honeymoon honeymoon” with his current love and their pet mongoose. Such is the uncommonly inventive setup of Peaces.
Otto Shin is one half of “a starry-eyed young couple” and has happily adopted the surname of his partner, Xavier. As the novel begins, they and their mongoose have boarded a sleeper train called The Lucky Day at their local station “in deepest Kent.” The ride was a gift from Xavier’s aunt. But, in one of the novel’s many engagingly bizarre flourishes, Otto and Xavier don’t quite know where they’re going. Even more curious: When Xavier calls his aunt from the train to check in on her, she says she’s in the company of someone named Yuri. Yuri claims to be a friend of Xavier’s, but Xavier doesn’t know who he is.
That’s just the start of the book’s many complications. Soon Otto and Xavier meet the train’s owner, Ava Kapoor, a theremin player who lives full time on The Lucky Day and has her own pet mongoose. Ava is days away from collecting an inheritance, but a series of events threatens her bounty. Among the characters that deepen the plot are a composer named Karel, who wrote a piece Ava used to play; Karel’s mysterious son, Přem; and a doctor assigned to assess Ava’s state of mind.
The story’s second half is convoluted, and Oyeyemi tends to overwrite, as when she describes a photo of a “fainting couch upholstered in brocade the color of Darjeeling tea in the fourth minute of brewing.” But fans of the British writer’s previous work, such as the PEN award-winning What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, will enjoy this novel’s surreal twists and imaginative scenarios. Peaces is like the work of a hypnotist: Those open to its allure will inevitably fall under its thrall.