Review: Annabel by Kathleen Winter
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.
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!