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Review: Annabel by Kathleen Winter

October 11, 2010

Annabel coverTitle: Annabel
Author: Winter, Kathleen
Length: 465 pages
Genre: Fiction, Gender Studies, General
Publisher / Year: House of Anansi Press  / 2010
Source: I picked it up at Word on the Street Halifax, where I heard Ms. Winter read from the book and got my copy signed.
Rating: 5/5
Why I Read It: I thought it sounded incredible from the moment I heard of it!
Date Read: 30/09/10

Does anyone remember way back long ago when I reviewed Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Genders by Gerald Callahan? Well, at that point I was so surprised and shocked to find out about intersex and how many kids are born with it each year… and how they are treated by the medical establishment. Often kids and even the parents weren’t told, doctors just did what they had to and you might never find out. At that time I knew I wanted to read more about it to learn more at some point.

When I heard about Annabel, a novel by Canadian author Kathleen Winter, about an intersex child born in Labrador, I was instantly intrigued. First of all, a story set in Labrador, which would be a new location for me to read about, but most importantly, a novel about an intersex child growing up. It sounded fascinating. (Oh, and isn’t the cover absolutely gorgeous?) From the jacket flap:

In 1968, into the beautiful, spare environment of remote coastal Labrador, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor girl, but both at once. Only three people are privy to the secret – the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neightbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows to adulthood within the hyper-masculine hunting culture of his father, his shadow-self – a girl he thinks of as “Annabel” – is never entirely extinguished, and indeed is secretly nurtured by the women in his life.

Annabel was everything I hoped it would be and more. Let me apologize now for the fact that there is no way I will be able to write a proper review. I can’t help gushing extensively. But I will do my best :)

The writing is exquisite. It really is beautiful. I usually read through a book quite quickly… but with this one I kept re-reading passages, and wanting to set it down to consider lines, and make it last as long as possible. This does NOT happen very often with me. I would say this is the only book all year that has made me do this. Definitely the only fiction book that has made me want to stop and take breaks to think about it like that.

Labrador, and the small town of Croyden Harbour, is so perfectly described that it feels like you are there. The moss, the caribou, the sparseness of it all. It made me want to visit, which is saying something, because I’ve been north once before and let me tell you – it is cold. But it just sounded so beautiful, and you could understand why they lived there, why the men spent months at a time out on their trap lines. The respect and love for the land around them was well written.

Wayne was a lovely and believable character. He had no idea, for a large part of the novel, that he is anything but a normal boy. But his parents do, and they end up treating him differently. The novel really explores the dynamics between people, as well as gender construction. One quote that I really loved from Wayne when he found out was the following from page 251:

Wayne closed his eyes in bed and saw the hidden part of himself in the schoolyard, in a dress with a green sash and shoes of red leather with a little heel like Gwen Matchem’s. There were a lot of things that changed if you were a girl: not just your heels or the way you put your hair, but things you talked about and the way you looked at the world.

I thought the examination of gender construction and how boys and girls are really created to be the way they are, and how they are expected to always be a certain way, was fascinating. Wayne, being a bit of both, and knowing this, finds himself noticing this sometimes more than an ordinary character could. His insights could be truly brilliant. His father expects so much more from him, if only because there is the question there. He has to prove himself more than an ordinary boy would, and he often feels that he falls short.

Treadway and Jacinta also were incredibly well created. They felt real both in their interactions in the world, and within the family. You could see who they were within the family and without and how things changed when Wayne was born.

The whole story was heartbreaking and beautiful. That’s really the best I can do review wise :) I hope you believe me and give the novel a try, if you get a chance!

64 Comments leave one →
  1. farmlanebooks permalink
    October 11, 2010 8:10 am

    You’ve sold me! I loved Middlesex and it sounds as though this one might be even better. I was amazed at how common intersex children are and the dilemma parents/doctors face when born. When I was pregnant with my first child I used to have a recurring nightmare about it – the first question anyone asks you is “Is it a girl or a boy?”. I was so scared that I’d have to say I didn’t know. Luckily that didn’t happen, but I am always intrigued and so will be getting a copy as soon as it comes out in the UK.

    • October 12, 2010 12:30 am

      Annabel is far better than Middlesex! At least, that’s my opinion! :)

    • October 13, 2010 11:21 am

      I haven’t read Middlesex, but I hope to at some point. I highly recommend the book and hope you love it Jackie. And yes, I had no idea it was so prevalent either – and we really give these people no real place in our society. It’s sad. ‘

      Steph – good to know Annabel is better :)

  2. October 11, 2010 9:16 am

    I LOVE the cover of this book, and it sounds like one that I need to read.

  3. October 11, 2010 10:39 am

    I can not wait for this to be published in the U.S. I may have to head right over to House of Anansi and order it online.

  4. October 11, 2010 10:47 am

    This sounds great! I remember being completely shocked when we started reading about intersex children in a queer theory class I took in college – like you, I’d had no idea how common it was.

    • October 13, 2010 11:23 am

      What is so sad is that it is so common, but unknown, and so we exclude them from society in so many ways through gender norms. Definitely something I’ll be looking to read more about Jenny.

  5. October 11, 2010 11:01 am

    Such an interesting but painful topic! Stories like this have wonderful insight into gender construction, but at the same time it’s so hard to think about the struggles an intersex child has to go through.

  6. October 11, 2010 11:05 am

    This does sound like an incredibly interesting book, and I know little to nothing about intersexuality, only what I have read here. I am definitely going to have to see if I can find this book. Your mention of the beautiful writing is another enticement. I love books that I can savor.

    On another note: have you ever heard of T.J. Dawe? He is a performance artist who travels between the U.S. and Canada and does these amazingly cerebral shows where he talks about the connections between literature and his life. I mention him here because he did a great show about traveling to Labrador and what life is like there. The way he brought the remoteness and sparseness to life was incredible. I think you can find recordings of some of his work on the internet, if you are interested. He is an incredibly brilliant dude.

    Sorry to get so off topic!

    • October 13, 2010 11:24 am

      Zibilee – I can’t recommend this book enough, seriously :)

      And I hadn’t heard of T.J. Dawe. Sounds fascinating though, I’ll check him up! And off topic is totally OK – but Labrador definitely isn’t off topic anyway so you’re good!

  7. October 11, 2010 11:22 am

    Definitely sounds like a topic for a novel that would hold my interest. I headed over to Amazon and found that the paperback won’t be available in the US until January. Unfortunately they changed that gorgeous cover that’s on your copy to one I wouldn’t have even picked up and looked at except for the fact that I had read your review.

    • October 13, 2010 11:26 am

      OH NO Leslie! I don’t like the paperback cover nearly as much. How sad! I wouldn’t pick it up with the new cover either. Very bad decision, I think. And so sad…. the book is still fantastic though at least :)

  8. October 11, 2010 1:35 pm

    Another one for the tbr, it sounds fascinating! I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to raise an intersex child or to be intersex on our society.

    • October 13, 2010 11:28 am

      I can’t imagine either Bina. It was such an incredible book.

  9. October 11, 2010 1:43 pm

    I once read a review of a book by a blogger that also dealt with this topic. In that book, whereas the male members of the family treated him as a boy, the female members secretly treated him as a girl. It’s a lovely book you have there and would look out for it. I am busy but I couldn’t stop sharing in your enjoyment.

    You have sold me too. Thanks

    • October 14, 2010 8:44 am

      Do you remember what that book was Nana? I’d be interested in reading it too :) Middlesex possibly? I’m glad that I’ve sold you!

  10. October 11, 2010 2:20 pm

    You have definitely sold me with your review!

  11. October 11, 2010 2:48 pm

    What else can I say? I can’t help than to add my voice to what my other colleagues have already said. Indeed you’ve completely sold me too! I have to look out for this book!

    • October 14, 2010 8:46 am

      I’m glad to hear it Geosi. It’s just newly out in Canada and I don’t know when it will be out anywhere else, but it is awfully good!

  12. October 11, 2010 4:09 pm

    Adding this to my wishlist. And I’ve been meaning to read Middlesex, too. Thanks.

    • October 14, 2010 8:46 am

      You are welcome Kinna. I keep meaning to read Middlesex as well :)

  13. October 11, 2010 5:44 pm

    Hi Amy. I have posted your review to my blog, UniqueScene. Thanks for another great review :-)

  14. Erin permalink
    October 11, 2010 5:59 pm

    I’m convinced! Plus the cover is stunning. Thanks for taking the time to argue so passionately why this book deserves to be read!

    • October 14, 2010 8:47 am

      Thank you Erin! And yes, I just love the cover. Unfortunately the coming US cover isn’t so stunning…

  15. October 11, 2010 7:37 pm

    This sounds excellent! You have such consistently interesting taste.

  16. October 11, 2010 8:51 pm

    Wow, this sounds really good. I loved Middlesex and would like to read another book like that. It’s a fascinating topic and I think it’s something we all need to be more aware of. Great review.

    • October 14, 2010 8:47 am

      It is a fascinating topic Kristen. I hope I like Middlesex as much now!

  17. October 11, 2010 10:00 pm

    Ooh … I want to read this! I learned about this condition — for lack of a better word — when I was in college, and I have always wondered what this experience would be like for a child and a family. And your the way you described this book, in your review, is so seductive. ;-)

    • October 14, 2010 8:48 am

      Yes, laughingstars66, it is hard to know what to call it. Some say condition, some intersex, some disorder of sex development, but all have stigma attached. It’s unfortunate. The book is fascinating, I think you would enjoy it.

  18. Kathleen Winter permalink
    October 11, 2010 11:52 pm

    Thank you, Amy, for this review – and thanks to your readers for their comments. I really appreciate the time and care you took reading and writing about Annabel.

    • October 14, 2010 8:50 am

      Thank you Kathleen, for the kind words and for writing such a great book!

  19. October 12, 2010 12:32 am

    Amy: I read you loved the cover. You’ll like this (I read his blog):

  20. October 12, 2010 12:33 am

    PS. LOL, it sounds like all I read of your review is that you loved the cover. No, no, I read all of it! :)

  21. October 12, 2010 7:45 am

    I saw you mention this recently and it went straight on my TBR list. Is it weird to say it looked like the kind of book that would ahve beautiful writing – cover judgement, you’ve got to love it. Good to see you mention a non-fiction book on inter sexuality too, will add that although it takes me ages to get to non-fic.

    • October 14, 2010 8:52 am

      Oh I totally cover judged it in the best way too Jodie! I highly recommend both it and BETWEEN XX AND XY :)

  22. October 12, 2010 10:08 pm

    Incredibly intriguing. Must have been such a difficult facade to maintain (for all four of them).

  23. October 13, 2010 1:45 pm

    Oh wow – Jodie was telling me that I needed to read this review of yours and she was absolutely right. Adding this to my wishlist immediately! It sounds like something I’d adore.

    • October 14, 2010 8:55 am

      Oh thank you Ana – I think you would really love this book. Then again, I think EVERYONE would really love it. So maybe I’m a little biased at the moment ;) And thanks to Jodie for pointing it out to you :)

  24. October 13, 2010 3:05 pm

    I’m really looking forward to this one being published in the U.S. next year! After reading about it first when it made the Giller Prize shortlist, I’m thrilled to see it sounds even better now!

    • October 14, 2010 8:55 am

      The cover isn’t as pretty on the US edition unfortunately, but the story is still fantastic Carrie. I hope you love it.

  25. November 6, 2010 3:57 pm

    I just finished a fantasy trilogy that plays with gender expectations (a baby girl is disguised as her twin brother at birth via magic to save her from being killed by her uncle the king), and I totally want to read this now. Especially with that gorgeous cover. But Amy: it hasn’t been published here yet! You’re so mean. :p

    Also, have you read Normal by Amy Bloom? Or I’m Looking Through You by Jennifer Finney Boylan? Both are excellent nonfic books looking at the fluidity of gender.

    • November 6, 2010 8:13 pm

      Oops, sorry for being mean Eva ;) I haven’t read either of the books that you mention, but I did read another by Boylan. I’ll add both to my wish list! What was the fantasy series?

      Also, just to warn, the US cover is not nearly as pretty!

      • November 7, 2010 9:44 pm

        I saw the US cover. It makes me sad. :( The fantasy series was The Tamir Trilogy, which starts with The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling. I’ll be talking about it on my blog soon. :)

  26. December 1, 2010 1:59 pm

    I haven’t read this yet, though it does sound fascinating. Thanks for the review.

  27. Ifi permalink
    January 31, 2011 3:15 pm

    Yes, talk about wanting to judge a book by it’s cover!! I picked up this book while on vacation in NY over Xmas ( because I simply couldn’t wait till March for it to get to Amazon uk ) and so got the scary cover!! I loved the first part of the book! I had no idea where Labrador was so I googled it. I loved learning the ways of the people; traplines, caribou moss, (I googled that too). Jacinta was so believable. Treadway, goodness, I felt I knew him personally. But when we get to the part where Wayne moves to St. John the book got a little weak. It was rushed, too much happen too quickly and It

    • Ifi permalink
      January 31, 2011 3:32 pm

      Sorry, I hit the send button. Too much happened too quickly in the second part and so I got the feeling that I just wanted to know how/ where Wayne would end up. I at this point lost the connection with him had little sympathy left after all that wonderful character build-up in the previous chapters. It was as if the author had abandoned the character of Wayne and needed to finish the story…..AND make everyone live happily ever after. 3.5 out of 5 for me.

    • February 3, 2011 11:51 am

      Ahhhh the scary cover, I don’t understand who made that marketing decision Ifi! I’m so glad that you picked it up though. You are right, once Wayne goes to St. John it does really change – the language, the flavor, the pace, all of it. The first part was it’s true strength. I’m glad you still enjoyed it even though you didn’t love it :)


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