Bottle Rocket Hearts

By Zoe Whittall. Cormorant Books, 189 pp, $19.95, softcover

October 30, 1995, and Montreal is torn in two by questions of loyalty and identity. Eve, young and in a constant state of self-invention, isn't even exactly certain what outcome she hopes for, though she's Anglo and too much of a romantic to give up on nationhood.

What's really bugging her: what to wear to the polling booth.

Bottle Rocket Hearts, Toronto grrrl-poet Zoe Whittall's first novel, remembers the age at which it seemed that the right outfit could work miracles–maybe even sway the future of the country. Eve goes for the silver dress and ankle boots, and whether it's that or something else, Canada survives.

Not everything does in the story: loves die, lovers too. Idealism fades away.

Bottle Rocket Hearts–so named because Eve hopes her heart will become like one: "Common, sturdy, but still potentially explosive"–rests its many charms on its main character. Whittall's observations of early adulthood in the mid '90s carry the heft of memory, and many details ring true. (Her roommates choose her after quizzing her on her musical tastes, not her bank-account balance.)

However, a novel this is not.

Late in the story, Eve's best friend re-creates the events of the book as performance art. The moments click by as memories are projected on-screen to voice-over accompaniment. There's passion in this playlet, and a kind of coherence that falls somewhere between accident and design. It's brief, it's charming, it's suggestive, but it lacks a shape. Put that between covers and you've got Bottle Rocket Hearts.