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Annabel, by Kathleen Winter.

July 31, 2016

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter.  Grove Press, Black Cat (2011),  480 pages.

 5 stars—FAVORITE

A sensitive, beautifully written book about a boy who might have been a girl growing up in an isolated community in Labrador, Canada.

Kathleen Winter is a Canadian writer.  She was born in northern England, but grew up in the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador.  In addition to her work as a writer for Sesame Street and as a journalist, she has published nonfiction and short stories.  This is her first novel, a book that has garnered various literary awards.

Annabel is set in Labrador, and the story is grounded in the unique qualities of the place, especially its isolation.  The men in the small village are trackers, deeply connected with the wild land, its flora and fauna.  Among them is Treadway, a solitary soul who loves his wife and enjoys making her happy, but his true self belongs in the wildness of the natural world.  Jacinta is his wife, gentle and indecisive, a newcomer to Labrador who still longs for the fullness of town life.

Treadway belonged to Labrador but Jacinta did not.  Treadway had kept the traplines of his father and was magnetized to the rocks, whereas Jacinta had come from St. John when she was eighteen to teach in the little school.

Both are good people, but they are unable to communicate with each other in times of crisis.

When their child is born with genitalia of both a boy and girl, Treadway does not consult his wife and decides alone that the infant will be a boy named Wayne.  Jacinta and Thomasina, the midwife, however, have a continuing sense of the girl inside the boy.  Having lost her husband and daughter in a boating accident, Thomasina befriends Wayne, calling him by her daughter’s name, Annabel.  As Wayne grows, he willingly works alongside his father learning to be a man, as defined in Labrador, but he realizes that this is “not his authentic self.”  When Wayne reaches adolescence, the problems of his dual sexuality surface.  Although outsiders can be kept from his secret identity, Wayne and his family must cope in new ways.

Winter writes rich, descriptive prose full of insights into the landscape and her characters.  She is particularly adept at conveying the contradictions and inner confusion of Wayne and his family.  At times the plot seemed unlikely, and I lack the knowledge of the human body to say whether or not what happened to Wayne physically is possible.  But given the beauty of Winter’s words, I seldom cared.

I particularly liked the descriptions of Winter’s characters.  For example, Treadway found solace in the woods. “If only the world could live in here, deep in the forest, where there were no stores or roads, windows and doors, no straight lines.  The straight lines were the problem.  Rulers and measurements and line and no one to help you if you cross them.”  The eccentric Thomasina does not attend the funeral of her husband and daughter “because outside was where the blue butterfly was, darting in and out of the reeds that stuck up in the snow in the sunny corner facing the sea.”  For Wayne the crowds of people in the city are depressing.  “You define a tree and you do not see what it is.  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 in the fissure and not name him a beast?”

As the story develops, Winter moves beyond the question of whether Wayne is male or female.   She describes a place where gender distinctions blur and individuals relate to each other simply as human beings.  Her writing takes us in a new direction of the acceptance of gender ambiguity.

I enthusiastically recommend Annabel to all who love beautiful words and are ready to think about sexuality in new ways.

And I found the cover of the book to be particularly haunting.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2016 6:23 pm

    I was thinking about this issue just the other day when I saw a program about support for teens with sexuality issues in a nearby regional town. If it’s hard everywhere, it’s probably even harder in remote rural places because the probability of meeting anyone to challenge the norm is low. In places where you might not ever have met someone who’s a bit different, there are no role models and maybe stereotyping flourishes more.
    It’s a facile example but I remember responding to a parent at a school I taught at, when she was critical of un unorthodox hair style on one of the kids, that if she thought that, she hadn’t spent enough time in St Kilda (which is an arty community in Melbourne where people with boring hair like mine are in the minority). But this small conversation does show how limited contact with diversity can shape ideas about what people ought to be like.

  2. August 1, 2016 4:43 am

    Interesting review. I have this on my shelf as I’m writing about intersex people and how they’re portrayed in novels set in circuses and sideshows for my PhD. This sounds like an interesting take on what it’s like to be intersex and have your gender chosen for you.

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