Book of the month: Zoe Whittall

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The internet is a wonderful thing. As this project has demonstrated many times, the unprecedented access the world wide web gives us to information and each other enables all sorts of connections and discoveries that would not have been possible – or at least nowhere near as easy – in centuries gone by.

October’s Book of the month is a good example. I found it through, of all things, accommodation site Airbnb, after Steve and I used it to book a place to stay in Toronto a couple of weeks back. Our host turned out to be a friend of a friend, TV and film producer Michelle Mama, who, among many things, made the award-winning documentary 21 Days to Nawroz about the lives of three women in Kurdistan.

Michelle and I got on well and had a great time discussing our various projects, so when she told me about a Canadian novel that she had bought the film rights for and offered to lend me a copy, I was keen to take a look. She disappeared upstairs and returned with Torontonian author Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts, one of the Globe and Mail newspaper’s top 100 books of 2007 and, I soon realised, an engrossing read.

Set around the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum, the novel follows 19-year-old Eve as she seeks to move out of her parents’ house and establish herself and her sexual identity in downtown Montreal. There she meets and falls for ardent separatist and non-monogamous older woman Della, who sweeps her into a world of sensation and experience she could barely have imagined before. As their volatile relationship shatters and remakes her, Eve finds her way into an urban family consisting of her new housemates, aspiring novelist Rachael and the flamboyant Seven. They ride the waves of politics, violence and homophobia that surge through the city’s streets with her, seeking true independence, even at the ultimate price.

Like many of the best writers I’ve encountered during my literary travels, Whittall has the knack of taking us into unfamiliar worlds. Despite being a stranger to both the independence question and Montreal’s ‘queer’ – as Whittall’s characters call it – scene, I quickly found myself drawn into Eve’s milieu. I felt with her the threat lurking in the gaze of neo-Nazi skinheads and the aggressive advances of the men she encounters in the street late at night, as well as the unease sparked by the passionate debates around Quebec’s bid for sovereignty, and the way expectations – heteronormative or otherwise – risk crushing and warping who we are.

This sense of immersion in Eve’s world is helped by the deft succinctness of Whittall’s language: the cold air that ‘hits [her] like a punch of new ideas’, the room so colourful ‘it’s like living in the middle of an exploding comet’. Time and again the author’s images snare experience and bring it home, fresh and twitching.

Whittall’s eye for quirkiness is a source of joy too and leads to funny moments in what might otherwise be an overly heavy book. Through odd details such as Eve’s stubborn belief that she can perform a handstand on two fingers to the curse that Della claims has led to all the women in her family dying by their 30th birthday, the characters come alive. In addition, there are wicked cameos, such as my favourite, the over-discerning customer who comes into the healthfood cafe where Eve works and asks, ‘Umm, what exactly is in the tofu carrot mushroom miso stew?’

The structure creaks a little now and then. After a punchy, filmic opening that, using the technique deployed in many episodes of subsequent blockbusters such as Breaking Bad, starts with the end crisis and then winds back to take us through what led up to it, the book is a little slow to get going. There’s also a risky section towards the end where Seven stages a play to reveal his responses to the events they have lived through. Some readers may find this hard to swallow.

Overall, though this novel is a great achievement. Unlike the maudlin, coming-of-age accounts many other Anglophone writers produce, in which boredom and drifting are the order of the day, things really happen in this book. Survival is at stake, people change and Whittall knows how to make us care. The story should make an absorbing film. I hope it won’t be too long before we can all go and see it.

Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall (Cormorant Books, 2007)

Picture by Josh Graciano

4 responses

  1. Oh the places we go! I just spent a week in Japan by reading The Makioka Sisters. According to a note in the front of the book, it was translated in 1957 by recommendation from UNESCO. How is that for a blast from the past?

  2. Pingback: Book of the month: Zoe Whittall | zarkovetskyworld

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