Katherine Govier’s fourth novel, Hearts of Flame, gets full marks for ambition. Its vision of Govier’s home city of Toronto is almost Dickensian in its scope: it touches the lives of prosperous north-enders, and of the poor who sleep nightly in the city’s parks and ravines. But it is also a very intimate study, concerned largely with the daily struggles of 40-year-old Blair Bowker, the single mother of a six-year-old daughter.
Blair works as a disc jockey at a local radio station and frets over the ambiguities of her fife. Her concerns about her child’s schooling or her relations with her lover may seem small when put into balance with the world’s problems. But they comprise the very fabric of fife for millions of Canadians at the close of the 20th century.
Hearts of Flame also chronicles the fate of the Sixties generation—those music-loving, mildly rebellious idealists who once intended to reform society with Flower Power and free love. Twenty years before the novel opens in 1989, Blair was a singer with Hearts of Flame, a folk band that enjoyed a brief success in Western Canada before breaking up. Now, its former members have gravitated to Toronto, where they preserve their beleaguered integri-
ty in occupations that are not quite mainstream. Philip creates special effects for stage and film productions. Oswald is a New Age psychic. And the outrageous Ruby (whose affair with Philip destroyed their band) has become a flamboyant fashion designer. The group’s members maintain sporadic, wistful contact. But when Ruby suddenly disappears, Blair is spun into a painful reassessment of their relationships.
The strength of Govier’s writing—particularly in her short stories—has always been its textured faithfulness to a particular milieu. Hearts of Flame is at its best as a novel of
record, reporting in flawless detail those corners of Toronto that Govier knows best. Her description of an upper-middle-class dinner party where the guests compare exercise routines and tiptoe through discussions of abortion and teenage sex is both painfully accurate and quite funny. Govier also brings a deep, engaging sympathy to the difficulties of single parenthood: its loneliness and desperation, its moments of pride and vivid love. As Blair contemplates taking a lover, her loyalty to her six-year-old daughter, Sissy, rises up to reproach her. Govier catches her struggle beautifully in a scene where mother watches daughter under a gentle fall of snow: “The girl stood, motionless, like a little pillar of salt, face to the sky. Snow was melting on her eyelids. Blair felt like the original pillar, solid with regret. She could not melt. She was the tree in whose shadow Sissy had to grow.”
Hearts of Flame also pays magnificent homage to Toronto. Knocking Toronto has long been a favorite sport among many Canadians. But as Govier writes of the jibes that Blair and Ruby toss at their adopted city—both are originally from Medicine Hat, Alta.—“Toronto-bashing united them in a rude salute to the place they were irresistibly drawn to.” Yet Hearts of Flame goes much further than that. Blair is an inveterate walker, and as she prowls the old central parts of the city, Govier evokes those neighborhoods with an unsentimental fondness. In her eyes, they take on a beauty and civility that may surprise some, but which Torontonians themselves have long been aware of. Govier knows the uglier sides of the city as well: the grey, slushy winter evenings, the toxic rush of its traffic. But she manages to hold such images within the wider context of her affection. Hearts ofFlameis a novel that unapologetically gives even minor streets and restaurants their actual names—a sign that Govier, like an increasing number of writers, takes open pleasure in Toronto’s inexhaustible variety.
Yet despite its many strengths, the novel as a whole flounders badly. Ruby’s disappearance—and the desperate search that follows— turn Hearts of Flame from a quiet but potentially effective novel of people and places into a crude melodrama. Govier never succeeds in making Ruby’s vanishing seem important: it is simply a transparent (and unnecessary) gimmick to get the plot moving. In its wake, several characters become caricatures, while a false urgency disrupts the novel’s once leisurely, but convincing, attention to detail.
Fortunately, Govier manages to salvage many scenes from the wreckage. In one extraordinary encounter, Blair finds a wounded bird outside the downtown office tower where her friend Max practises law. She carries the bird into Max’s office in her cupped hands. Max is so startled by her appearance that he bleats out an expletive, while slamming down the phone on an important client. The moment catches the tragedy of men like Max perfectly. Though rich and powerful, they are so isolated in their glass office towers that they are utterly cut off from the delicate, earthy roots of life.
Blair has her faults, as well. She is indecisive, and inclined to be a passive observer. But she also has a mature ability to shoulder life’s ambiguities: she is aware that she not only loves her daughter, but also is puzzled and angered by Sissy’s oddly dour demeanor and asocial behavior. And most important of all, she is capable of change. At the novel’s beginning, Blair is nervous about being attacked in Toronto’s parks. By the end, she takes her daughter into one to spend the night among the homeless. She is, it seems, discovering a wildness and independence in herself that she formerly thought belonged only to Ruby. Such moments save Hearts of Flame from failure. But Govier never manages to weave them into a consistent and convincing whole.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.