Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall

Montreal in the emotionally charged times of the Quebec Referendum - 1995 and 96 - is the setting for this novel about falling in love for the first time and learning to let go when the relationship has run its course.

Eve is small, shy and adamantly femme. "With my scrawny torso, A-cups and slight hips, any physical femininity was going to come through my hair. I dyed it white blond last weekend." She is 18 when she falls for Della, an artist 10 years older than herself.

"The first time I met Della, she was wearing a white wife-beater tank top. She'd scrawled boy beater across the chest in red marker. The shirt showed off her muscled arms painted in two bright sleeves of tattoos. She was wearing baggy green army pants and had scraggly blue and black hair that was molded and pointed in peaks like she was straight out of a comic book. At first glance I wasn't sure if she was a boy or a girl and it didn't matter. I was slack-jawed and near tourretic and trying unsuccessfully to hide it."

Eve struggles with jealousy. Della's ex maintains such a powerful influence that Eve refers to her only as 'xxxx' instead of by name. Eight months into their relationship, Della finally says, " 'I want you to be mine. All mine.' She said it in French but I understood perfectly. And like that, as I felt the booze burn a hole through my core and then warm it up, we tried on a snowsuit of monogamy." I love Whittall's poetic use of a garment that is easily removed when it becomes too warm.

I enjoy reading about women whose lives are different from mine. It isn't often that I read something with so many aspects that parallel my own experiences: coming out as a teen into a queer community where everyone seemed to be older and better informed than I was; falling hard for flawed women; polyamory and submersion into lesbian feminist politics. Whittall references the Michigan Women's Music Festival and the Androgyne bookstore; I have a poster on my wall of the Michigan festival and I bought it at Androgyne in 1981. Even passages that make it clear Eve is from a younger generation, as she gets around the city on her skateboard, bring mental images. I remember walking to a lesbian dance in about 1995 and being surprised that the "kid" who passed me a couple of minutes earlier on a skateboard was stepping on the end of it to carry it inside at the entrance to the community hall; a baby dyke old enough to drink.

Bottle Rocket Hearts had me reliving the complex emotions that went along with my early coming out years. For various reasons, it also brought the writings of other authors to mind as I went along. I don't mean to imply that Whittall's work is derivative. It was more that I felt lots of openings into a larger lesbian literary world: Michelle Tea (a young femme in a larger sea of queer culture), Nairne Holtz (Montreal and queer subculture), Stacey May Fowles (prominent role of setting), Kristyn Dunnion (queer punks) and more. A single word, 'furious', was enough to invoke Erin Moure's poetry. It was an intensely personal reading experience.

I look forward to reading Wittall's about-to-be-released novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible.

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