‘Bird Suit’ is a surreal, lush and devastating portrait of small-town life

Sydney Hegele’s new novel is a queer take on the the genre of southern Ontario gothic literature

In Sydney Hegele’s Bird Suit, the fictional southern Ontario town of Port Peter grows the most mouth-watering peaches in the area, while hiding intimate, violent secrets under its charming, tourist-friendly veneer. Set mainly in the early 1970s (before jumping forward in time to the mid-aughts), the novel ensnares several characters in a complex web of relationships that threatens to destroy them all. The text brims with desire, transgression and tragedy; it is tightly and expertly wound, rich with sensual imagery and tinged with dread. 

The novel is divided into three peachy parts: Bloom, Ripen and Feast. The peach is a provocative symbol throughout—peaches are lush, juicy, sticky and delicious, but they can also be spoiled. Port Peter is a scenic town, popular with tourists in the summer; but as the hot weather wanes, its character changes completely. “The peaches are suddenly too soft. The juice is tinged sour. When [the tourists’] fingers can squish through the bruised flesh of the fruit without much effort, they know it is time to return home.” 

Once their savings from their summer jobs have run out, the town’s year-round inhabitants struggle through the winter, lining up at the unemployment office as a collective daily ritual. The peaches that were so coveted in the summer turn sickening as the townspeople, low on resources, resort to eating the leftover products that they were unable to sell months before. The peaches could just as well be the young women of Port Peter—sought after by all the male tourists in summer, perceived to be spoiled once they have had sex. The town adheres to patriarchal hierarchy, both at church and in the family unit. Each year, the young girls who give birth after finding themselves pregnant by the long-departed male tourists, are taken by their mothers to the town’s outskirts to leave their babies to the Birds—siren-like beings who live in Lake Ligeia. There is no abortion clinic anywhere nearby, we are told. 

The Birds “live a most pleasant existence”—they do not have to adhere to the punitive rules of fathers and priests, unlike the women of Port Peter, who are largely powerless against the rules and tyrannies of the men they live with, who often invoke God to justify their actions. The Birds, some of whom sport “black teeth, scales, gills, fur,” raise the human babies as their own, and avoid interacting with the people of the town. Georgia Jackson is a young local whose single mother, Elsie, once tried to leave her to Birds, but the Birds did not accept her. This marks her immediately as different, and she grows up to be a risk-taker, a seeker of thrills and punishment. A painful history of abuse by her mother’s boyfriends leaves her believing that she is a bad person. She addresses this feeling of badness by summoning punishment: “If pain doesn’t make sense, nothing does.” Georgia soon finds herself embroiled in a turbulent sexual and emotional entanglement with a much older married couple: Arlo and Felicity Bloom, a preacher and his wife who have moved back to town after many years away. This entanglement drives many personal reckonings for all three characters, and the people close to them. 

 

This is Hegele’s first novel—they previously published a well-received collection of stories, The Pump. Bird Suit is sure-footed and observant, portraying the ambiguities of religion, faith, family relationships and queer desire, and leaves no doubt that Hegele is an adept chronicler of the many violences and repressions of (largely white) small-town Ontario life (which they also plumbed in The Pump). Bird Suit contributes to the body of southern Ontario gothic literature, which was popularized by the work of writers like Alice Munro, Timothy Findley and Robertson Davies, and tends to examine the secrets, gossip and hypocrisies of white Christian settler communities, sometimes invoking supernatural elements to illustrate the effects of stifling unwanted emotions and desires and suffering under repressive social norms. 

The characters in Bird Suit are burdened with lineages of fear and judgment, as well as patterns of familial violence that simmer and grow with each new generation, unaddressed and doomed to be repeated. Port Peter is both a quaint town on a beautiful lake, and a site for abuse, shame and deceit. Arlo Bloom is a priest, and father to Isaiah. Arlo’s own father was abusive and unaccepting of him and his twin sister, and, after a terrible loss, Arlo becomes a man who mimics his own father’s parenting methods. Another character is afraid of his father as a young boy; this father is a lighthouse keeper who sets fatal traps for Birds, telling his son that the Birds are “death incarnate,” despite the fact that the humans in the book seem much more dangerous. The boy-men who visit the town as tourists each summer and sleep with the local girls have already learned “that touch can only be violent.” This violence makes its way into relationships between women too, between lovers, between mothers and daughters: in a brief scene in Port Peter’s church, a young girl happily belts out hymns, only to be harshly silenced by her mother, who tells her that she’s embarrassing herself. Unabashed joy and self-expression are highly discouraged, even punished here. When it comes to queerness, there is no tolerance at all—a passionate queer relationship between two characters is all-consuming, until it is swiftly and violently ended, leaving a wake of trauma, anger and fear.

This isn’t to say that there is no softness in Bird Suit. Georgia and Felicity form a tender, if tense connection, within the unstable trio of the Blooms and Georgia. Initially fascinated by Arlo’s controlling arrogance, Georgia soon becomes much more compelled by Felicity—personally and sexually. Isaiah Bloom sees his father’s pain and sadness, and longs to comfort him, even as he hates and fears him. Hegele doesn’t oversimplify questions of abuse, especially in familial or intimate relationships: “Fear and love are not two strands intertwined: they are the same strand, and Isaiah cannot distinguish one from the other.” The characters in Bird Suit hurt each other, and themselves, over and over, while loving each other. Felicity knows she might be setting Georgia up for harm in their uneven trio, and yet she cares deeply for her. Despite, or perhaps because of Georgia’s secret relationship with Arlo and Felicity, Georgia and Isaiah form an intimate, gentle friendship, in which they learn to be emotionally vulnerable with each other, and dream of running away to make art together. Georgia slowly unburdens herself to him, and he reciprocates. Unfortunately, the one thing she can’t reveal to him is the thing she might need to talk to him about the most.

The mythical Birds are not the only birds in Bird Suit. Both Felicity and Isaiah have birds living in their heads—Felicity has a mourning dove, “a bird nested in her skull, who told her what to do,” which appears when she witnesses an act of violence as a child. Isaiah, having experienced countless acts of violence himself, has a menagerie of birds living in his brain: one bird for each abusive event—a cardinal, a chickadee and a crane all enter his head during major incidents, along with countless hummingbirds, for the countless “minor” incidents. Sometimes the birds are so loud inside his head that he can’t think—embodying the psychic effects of long-term trauma. The Birds can also be heard by some humans, singing from the lake. They seem to offer an alternative to the painful repressions of Port Peter, possibly with deadly trade-offs if their call is followed, though it isn’t entirely clear. Their collective character is somewhat underdeveloped—there is a brief section in which the Birds narrate as “we,” but this is soon dropped as a narrative voice and never returns. We meet one Bird who has a child with a human man, but she is a distant character, withdrawn and aloof.

The Birds remain largely unknowable to the reader, which feels like a missed opportunity: What do the Birds think of the humans and their foibles? How are we to understand the Birds and their desire to raise discarded human children as their own, and why does the community of Birds seem to be collectively feminine in the text, if babies of all genders are presumably given to them? Perhaps if the Birds and their way of life were more detailed, we could better understand the connections between the birds who dwell inside Felicity’s and Isaiah’s heads as embodiments of harm, and these non-human Birds who dwell in the lake, and appear to represent a (potentially costly) escape from that harm. 

The question of whether trauma can be escaped is a potent one throughout the novel—as well as whether people who have experienced abuse can choose not to harm others. Georgia, Felicity, Isaiah and even Arlo grapple with these questions, are plagued by them, cannot help but play out their implications repeatedly. Hegele has crafted a tense, provoking novel, and demonstrates an impressive control of their protagonists and the secrets and fears that they carry—each one revealed at the precise moment when it will be the most catalytic. Bird Suit is filled with deeply observed, profoundly flawed characters, and compels to the very end, through tragedy and hard-earned moments of levity.

H Felix Chau Bradley

H Felix Chau Bradley is a writer and editor living in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). They are the author of Personal Attention Roleplay (Metonymy Press, 2021) and Automatic Object Lessons (House House Press, 2020). They are an editor for This Magazine and Le Sigh, and host of the Strange Futures book club for Librairie Drawn & Quarterly.

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Books, Culture, Review, Ontario, Arts, Canada, Abuse

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