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Annabel by Kathleen Winter
House of Anansi Press 2010
461 pages
Fiction; Historical Fiction

In 1968 a small community in Labrador, on the eastern coast of Canada, a baby is born to Jacinta and Treadway Blake. Their close friend and neighbour, Thomasina, catches the baby and sees instantly that there is something unusual about it: the baby has a penis and one testicle, and beneath that, fully formed labia and a vagina. The baby is a fully-formed hermaphrodite. Even before Jacinta takes him to the hospital, a plane ride away, over a week later, Treadway has already decided to name the baby Wayne, after his own father. At the hospital, the doctor measures the baby’s penis – depending on the length, they’ll decide whether he’s more boy, or has a long clitoris.

Growing up, Wayne has no idea about the secret persona he carries within him, but he’s not the typical boy Treadway would have wanted – and he’s not the girl his mother would have liked to have, either. Only Thomasina wants to be honest with Wayne, but has promised not to tell him anything. Her one small gift is to call him Annabel, after her own little girl who died just days after Wayne was born.

Annabel is the story of Wayne, a little boy who isn’t just a little boy, growing up in the wilds of Labrador in the 70s and 80s, yearning for something that he doesn’t understand, or even knows exists. It’s the story of his parents, each dealing with their secret and the hopes they’ve built up in their own minds. It’s a coming-of-age novel, a story of contrasts and absolutes, between which society allows for no grey.

I’ve been struggling with this review – struggling to start it, really – for over a week. While reading it, I had so many thoughts, so many things to say, but now I don’t even know where to start; afraid, too, of having forgotten the things I wanted to say about this book. I’ll just pick a place to start and go from there.

This is the first book I’ve read that’s set in Labrador, as far as I can remember – there’s a section set in Newfoundland as well, when Wayne is eighteen. Labrador is a unique place, and Winter has done a superb job of bringing it to life. Not only does it have that patina of a past era – and there are some nicely-placed cultural and historical references, as well as the actual date, that help ground you in a time bygone – but it also has a strong sense of isolation and wilderness. The men spend months, all the long winter months, out on the ice with their skidoos and sleds and dogs, checking their traplines, coming home only once in a while, while their wives stay at home in or around the small town of Croydon Harbour, keeping each other company as well as they can while their kids go to school.

Jacinta socialises with two other women who don’t seem to have good marriages; in contrast, Jacinta thinks of herself as lucky to have Treadway – certainly all the other women admire him as a husband. But as Wayne grows older the secret Treadway and Jacinta are keeping – from Wayne and from everyone else – rots their relationship, though on the surface it seems like it’s Wayne himself who’s causing the problem. Really, it’s Treadway’s expectations for a son, and Jacinta’s silent reproach of them. From the beginning, they approached Wayne’s sexuality very differently:

Everything Treadway refused to imagine, Jacinta imagined in detail enough for the two of them. Whereas he struck out on his own to decide how to erase the frightening ambiguity of their child, she envisioned living with it as it was. She imagined her daughter beautiful and grown up, in a scarlet satin gown, her male characteristics held secret under the clothing for a time when she might need a warrior’s strength and a man’s potent aggression. Then she imagined her son as a talented, mythical hunter, his breasts strapped in a concealing vest, his clothes the green of striding forward, his heart the heart of a woman who could secretly direct his path in the ways of intuition and psychological insight. Whenever she imagined her child, grown up without interference from a judgemental world, she imagined its male and female halves as complementing each other, and as being secretly, almost magically powerful. It was the growing up part she did not want to imagine. The social part, the going to school in Labrador part, the jeering part, the what will we tell everyone part, the part that asks how will we give this child so much love it will know no harm from the cruel reactions of people who do not want to understand. [p.28]

In many ways, this story was painful to read. I can well imagine – and yet not imagine at all – what Jacinta felt, to have such a child. The sheer agony of wanting the best for your child – something all parents feel and desire – yet knowing that everything will be against them. In some ways, this is a more challenging, more frightening threat to mainstream society than those born joined to their twin, because it is hidden, elusive, deceptive. The story is also immensely sad, for Wayne’s relationship with his father, for what happens to Wayne’s best friend, a girl called Wally (she was named after Wallace Simpson), for the bridge Wayne built with his father, spent most of the summer in with Wally, and which Treadway tears down because he feels insecure about Wayne’s behaviour, feeling it’s too girly.

But Treadway was yet another sympathetic character. I often felt that this story was about Treadway more than it was about Wayne (and incidentally, the name “Wayne” never matched the character, like he/she had borrowed someone else’s name. It’s just so absolutely “manly”, and it never suited his/her personality.) The irony is that, for as black-and-white as our gender roles are – and the world really has no room for anything in-between (though I applaud recent laws passed in Ontario that affirm the rights of transgender etc. people), Annabel shows exactly how ambiguous and tenuous such gender roles really are, how ridiculous and short-sighted and narrow they are for “ordinary” people, people with just one gender, let alone for hermaphrodites or anyone else. And it shows compassion and understanding towards men like Treadway, who have a straight-forward view of the world and struggle to deal with, let alone comprehend, anything so staggeringly different as his own son is, from that understanding. So I really couldn’t hate Treadway. He’s a very solid character, and my feelings towards him fluctuated a great deal. I thought I’d never forgive him when he tore down the bridge-fort, but I sort-of did. He’s such a living father-figure, and the one character who is more vividly alive than any other.

One of the things I appreciated about this novel, was that neither Treadway nor Jacinta “represented” any facet of society. They were just two people, different people from different places (Jacinta came from St. John’s in Newfoundland), who were struggling in different ways to do right by their child. Much of the social message of Annabel is not directly stated, but now and then you get a wonderful passage like this:

The street smelled like cigarettes, perfume, and coffee, and Wayne saw that the faces, bodies, clothes, and shoes of the men and women who passed him had been divided and thinned. The male or female in them had been both diluted and exaggerated. They were one, extremely so, or they were the other. The women trailed tapered gloves behind them and walked in ludicrous heels, while the men, with their fuzzy sideburns and brown briefcases, looked boring as little beagles out for the same rabbit. You define a tree and you do not see what it is; it becomes its name. It is the same with woman and man. Everywhere Wayne looked there was one or the other, male or female, abandoned by the other. The loneliness of this cracked the street in half. Could the two halves of the street bear to see Wayne walk the fissure and not name him a beast? [p.350]

The clothes might not be so clear-cut along gender lines anymore (or so we tend to think), but the divide is still there, loud and clear. Have you ever seen a transvestite, on the street? I used to work on Yonge St in Toronto’s CBD, which is just one street west of Church, otherwise known as “boystown”, so you’d see men dressed in full drag now and then. It catches the eye, you can’t help it, because it’s slightly off. It’s not the same as seeing a man in a skirt, be it a kilt or just another knee-length skirt: they’re not trying to look like women (and frankly, they look great. Men can totally carry off skirts when they want to). It’s like seeing the one ripple in the pond, the one flaw in the weaving, the one fingerprint on the clay pot. And it’s all training, it’s all social conditioning.

To continue this tangent for a moment longer, I was watching the three babies I look after today, my own 13 month old son, a 14 month old girl and a 15 month old boy. I was watching the back of the girl’s head, with the little curls sticking out, the quite graceful neck, and thinking how feminine, how “girly”, she looked. But then I looked at my own baby, next to her, and realised that he has the same neck, the same way of looking down that elongates it, the same smooth, beautiful skin. And it’s quickly clear that the only difference is their clothing. The girl was wearing a white top with multi-coloured spots in bright, girly colours (pink, yellow, orange, green) with a cupcake printed on the front, and a pink skirt. My boy was wearing grey overalls over a yellow onesie, with a yellow dinosaur on the side. It immediately altered the way I perceived them (that and the fact that I already knew that one was girl, one a boy). I often take conscious note of things like this, like how I feel uncomfortable by the thought of putting my son in a pink outfit. Pink used to be the colour for boys, a long time ago; it’s nothing more than social conditioning. But it’s hugely persuasive.

Winter wrote Annabel with one of those extreme omniscient third-person narrators, telling more than showing. Everything we learn and come to understand is essentially handed to us on the page, with limited room for the reader to read actively. But not entirely: the subject-matter, and the characters, ensure that you’re constantly thinking and feeling. Still, I’m not keen on this writing style, though there are books that use it that I absolutely love. Every author has a different voice, their own style, so it’s more than just the technique they use to tell a story that decides whether it’ll connect with you. I find this style to be the most ironic: by telling you everything, by peeling back the characters’ skin and pulling out their innermost thoughts, their history and even the things about themselves that they don’t understand, it actually creates more distance rather than less. It can be alienating, or merely condescending.

Reading Annabel left me conflicted: I loved the story, the main characters, and the setting. I found it hard to connect with the prose because it told me too much and didn’t leave me with anything to do. As a study of human nature as well as social conditioning, it both succeeds and falls short. As a portrait of a young hermaphrodite, it was disappointing in that it never seemed comfortable with Wayne, either. You never really get close to him – not consistently, anyway; instead, the narration looks on him like just another adult, watching, measuring, supporting, but never really understanding or empathising.

By grade eight his sequined bathing suit was far too small; its straps cut his shoulders and the crotch was tight, and the time had passed in which he had enough innocence to wear it, but he left it crumpled in its box under his bed. He missed Wally, and he wondered what would happen if he could tell her they were both girls, at least in part. He wished he could ask Wally to call him Annabel. They could be best friends like Carol Rich and Ashley Chalk, who passed battleships-and-cruisers paper to each other in Mr Wigglesworth’s class and ate hickory sticks on the fire escape. Wally and Annabel.

But Annabel ran away.

Where did she go? She was inside his body but she escaped him. Maybe she gets out through my eyes, he thought, when I open them. Or my ears. He lay in bed and waited. Annabel was close enough to touch; she was himself, yet unattainable. [p.252]

I suffer what all humankind suffers: a perverse fascination with things that are vastly different from the “norm”. These days we like to pretend we’re more “civilised” than that, but it’s not true, it’s still there inside us (that North American TV channel, TLC, must have as its mandate to satisfy this fascination that lives inside us, judging by the kind of shows it airs). When I compartmentalise that base fascination and put it aside, I am left with admiration for how Winter tackled this subject matter, and the characters. It wasn’t predictable, it didn’t sink into melodrama, and except for the disappointing epilogue, it maintained a certain degree of polish throughout. I just struggled to connect with the characters, because of how the book is written, and connecting with the characters in a really personal way is key. It has a special rhythm to it, the prose, and there are some beautiful passages, but at the end of the day it crowded out the characters and their subtle yet powerful story, and left me less satisfied than I might have been.

Annabel was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Orange Prize.


Other Reviews:

“Winter’s skilled writing style suits the book well: it’s simple and clean, but also deliberate and distinct. … Annabel has everything, without losing focus or being overwhelming: life, death, love, hate, despair, hope, loss, renewal, lies, truth, and perhaps most of all and importantly, ambiguity. Life is not black or white, after all. In each of us resides all of these things together, and more besides. All of us are complex, male and female together, though not so many of us are physically both of these things. The struggles of how to find one’s place or deal with loneliness, confusion, and what’s right are not foreign, but what makes Wayne’s struggle so interesting is that it — and indeed he — seems to literally embody our innermost workings.” Bella’s Bookshelves

“Kathleen Winter drew me into this story gradually, and skillfully. It wasn’t a page-turner, but I was surprised to find myself emotionally caught up in this book.” Musings

“I still believe Winter is a fantastic writer, and one I won’t hesitate in reading again, but I just can’t help but feel that this book could have been so much more. … It is a beautiful novel, and she is a great writer, but it is overwritten and lacking in emotion for me.” Book Monkey

“Perhaps this is an interesting story, maybe a more interesting one than a hermaphrodite being born in a more heterodox metropolis; but it is also a flatter one […] It’s just that […] this book feels less complex, even where more direct.” @Number 71

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