As a reader grows older, it gets harder not to fall victim to the idea that the novel is somehow in crisis—that this protean form is down to its next-to-last transformation. This feeling is almost certainly a disguised reaction to one’s own growth in age and experience. The more art we know, the less frequently does a single work of art arrest us, as in adolescence, with its sheer newness: we recognize too many of the recombined bits of the old that most often make up the new. There is no reason to choose sadness or nostalgia, rather than, say, gratitude, as our response to this change in our perceptions, but we can’t always choose our responses. And once the mood asserts itself, it’s hard to shake, no matter how much we remind ourselves that such laments are nearly as old as novels are. We accordingly reserve special affection for those novelists who make us feel that there’s life in the old form yet. Among younger writers—“young,” for a novelist, being any age under fifty—nobody gives me that feeling as often as Helen Oyeyemi.
No writer is entirely sui generis, of course, and you can identify Oyeyemi’s influences easily enough. (She’s quite generous about crediting them, both in interviews and in the texts of the books themselves.) For starters, there’s mythology. The flawed but ambitious Boy, Snow, Bird (2014) flips the story of Snow White to make a hero of the “monstrous” stepmother, while White Is for Witching (2009) features a monster drawn from Caribbean folklore, the soucouyant. Perhaps her best novel, Mr. Fox (2011), takes up a very modern sort of Bluebeard—the male novelist who habitually does horrible things to his female characters, and is challenged by one of those characters, who has sprung free of his text—but the situation that develops from this setup constantly grows in its moral and emotional complications until any hint of the didactic has been smothered. Oyeyemi acknowledges her debt to fabulists like Silvina Ocampo, Kelly Link, and Barbara Comyns; and, like them, she writes comic fantasies that are often a small shift of perception away from being sheer horror stories. (There are far too many living puppets and talking dolls in these books for them to feel entirely benign.) Her plots mimic the frantic complications and escalating absurdities of screwball comedy. She has said that she’s Catholic “but mostly in it for the mysticism,” and her stories often turn metafictive—not so that they can meditate soberly on the Meaning of Fiction As Such but more as a little acknowledgment that reality always has multiple levels. What she’s done with all these influences feels so fresh that one feels grateful for even minor Oyeyemi.
Peaces is about a small group of characters who meet on a train that seems bound for everywhere in general and nowhere in particular. A couple, Otto and Xavier Shin, after having “run the romantic gauntlet for decades without knowing who exactly it is [they] were giving and taking such a battering in order to reach,” have met and fallen in love, and they celebrate their “non-honeymoon”—they have agreed to share a last name but not to get married—with a trip on this mysteriously commodious vehicle, which has, for example, its own post office and bazaar. Otto narrates, and we learn to like him but not always to trust his accounting of things.