Toronto
3 min

Heart’s truth is writer’s compass

Wizowaty brings us home the wiser

Credit: Xtra files

Who or what drove Hoke Smith to take his own young life? It’s rumoured that he killed himself 100 years ago in a rare and graceful round barn that he’d helped build – one of the few such barns still intact in the rural Vermont of Suzi Wizowaty’s debut novel.



Wizowaty lives in Vermont with her long-time partner Joan. The domestic evidence might suggest that any fledgling work of fiction coaxed from Wizowaty’s keyboard would be a lesbian novel. Well, not exactly.



One of the pleasures of The Round Barn is its insistence on not favouring any particular lust or love, but exploring all equally. The heart’s truth is this writer’s compass. Wherever it points for each character, she follows.



We start with Mary and Tuesday. Tuesday is a curator at the local historical museum, which has just restored and reassembled a round barn on the museum grounds. Mary runs the general store in a nearby village. They’re cousins, not quite the kissin’ variety, though Tuesday would like to change that – he’s had a boyish crush on Mary for 40 years. But Mary’s married, and never had quite the same hots for Tuesday.



Mary is a dowser, wielding a carefully carved beech stick to find underground water and lost pets. She says she’s “not a superstitious woman. I don’t trouble about black cats, broken mirrors or God. Dowsing is different.” Mary’s a seeker after meaning, and dowsing is her best guide so far.



Then one day she’s in a doctor’s office waiting to hear biopsy results. “How odd that all her life she had taken pleasure in waiting, waiting and listening, listening to the universe for some sign… full of anticipation for what was to come next.” But in the oncology clinic, what’s next holds little promise. “She wished for the first time in her life to go backward.”



When Wizowaty tells us on page 34 that one of her principle characters has ovarian cancer, we have no choice but to hope we’re in skilled hands. This journey is going to take us into darkness. First, though, we embark on an instructive 100-page detour. New characters take us into lives less threatened, but every bit as complicated.



There’s Didi, who does PR for the museum. “She had a number of sexual and romantic liaisons with men, some of them even lasting a year or more. But at 25 she met Maude.” Twenty years later they’re still inseparable – until Maude, a painter, heads off for an eight-week art retreat. For Didi it’s a tough test of fidelity; she’s recently taken a shine to Adrian, a local newspaper reporter.



And there’s Didi’s visiting nephew David: arty, 18 and evidently on the verge of finding himself. When he treks into the woods to find materials for building his exquisite birdhouses, he imagines that a forest sprite might suddenly “emerge from the shadows, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and jump his bones.”



Just out of high school, David is emerging from a heavy infatuation with his English teacher. In a flashback we watch David and Mr Marcus exchange deeply coded affection in the teacher’s office. Then David spontaneously quotes a short poem by EE Cummings. Quoting poets is a device often better confined to a novel’s epigraph. But Wizowaty takes a risk here that pays off beautifully, expressing the shared but unspoken attraction between David and his mentor.



As we rejoin Mary and her search for peace in the face of approaching death, other characters are introduced, most notably Dean, an eccentric museum staffer who begins spouting erudite monologues to young David. Entering into his reminiscences, we learn the details of an incestuous adolescent relationship he had with his sister. Gradually, we see that his high-flown verbal games are a half-conscious expression of dawning desire.



Amid the hum and heat and anguish of these many relationships, we come back to Hoke Smith: how and why he died in the round barn. The answer offers a revelation for David, and an equal one for dying Mary – an insight into the secrets of love, the perils of repressing it and the fear of giving it freely.



Portraying the progress of fatal illness can defeat even the best fiction writers, and there are a few times here (“bluebirds of happiness” moments) that threaten to sink the narrative in treacle. But Wizowaty keeps us afloat and finally brings us home the wiser, skillfully navigating between shoals of easy sentiment and overblown tragedy.



Perhaps best of all, this book is part of a growing body of new work that expands the boundaries of “gay” and “lesbian” fiction. It’s about all of us – an encompassing tale that transcends sexual categories and celebrates the uniqueness of individuals.



THE ROUND BARN.

By Suzi Wizowaty.

University Press Of New England.

249 pages. $39.95.