Peace by Gene Wolfe
Published in 1975
Genre: Fantasy, ghost story, supernatural
“The elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge’s daughter, fell last night.”
Though this sentence seems imbued with significance, it will ultimately become one lost among thousands in the course of reading Peace, by Gene Wolfe. The story follows the rambling memories of Denny Weer; his thoughts run from one into another as flashbacks and flash forwards meld together, creating a spiderweb of connections in his mind. Life, death, pain, love, loss, the permeability of human memory, and sorrow all get their due time in this twisting tale about a man’s life.
The winding and confusing narrative shows Denny’s state of mind as he contemplates back on his life in the wake of a stroke, returning to a memory of visiting the doctor. His memories are further muddled by living in his house which was built with re-creations of rooms from different eras of his life. He travels from one into another, containing his office from when he was president of a company, a Persian smoking room, and the bureau where he hides a Boy Scout knife from his childhood. It is within these walls that he contemplates on life and death, as well as recounting the stories of his aunt Olivia’s various suitors. He lived with her as a child, and the men that courted her would go on to form oblique, yet strong, bonds in the story of his life. The story is difficult to keep track of, which does bog down the pace in the beginning until he begins to tell more complete stories, though they are interspersed with other recollections.
As stated above, Peace makes use of a stream-of-consciousness type narration, much like The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez. However, where The Autumn of the Patriarch was a bit of a slog to read through, Peace is more palatable in that the connections do come together, and it doesn’t double back on the same plot point. The story also concerns multiple ghost stories that Denny was told as a child, including one about a banshee, and another about a haunted man slowly turning to stone. Denny breaks the fourth wall to address the reader, which does speak to some self-acknowledgment of his mental confusion and makes his character all the more pitiable.
Wolfe writes with wonderful and vivid imagery, creating intricate set pieces and details that bring Denny’s world to life. Though the book is difficult in the beginning, I was pulled into the narrative by his amazing prose and the depth of his characters, as well as the small mysteries placed in Denny’s life. This review is rather short because I still don’t quite know what to feel about this book. I was left with the feeling that I was glad I read it, but wasn’t sure if I was supposed to pick anything up in the end. Perhaps it was merely an exercise in narrative fiction, or a simple piece of entertainment that speaks to the issues and problems inherent to human life. Regardless, I am glad that I made it through this book and, though it didn’t do anything specific for me aside from entertainment and some thoughts to ponder, perhaps it will evoke more from you.
Verdict: 3 nonlinear narratives out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of ghost stories, fans of nonlinear storytelling, those who like being confused, and people looking for an interesting reading experience.
Not recommended for: Those who like linear storytelling, those who dislike ghost stories, the easily confused, or those quickly dissuaded by books with slow starts.