Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi -- click cover for more info

For this reader, Kathleen Winter’s first novel is dependent on three key characters, none of whom are the “Annabel” of of the title. That character, who is born in the opening pages of the novel, has one little testicle, labia and a vagina. Those three adult characters are all present at the birth:

Treadway, the baby’s father. The opening pages of the novel are set in Labrador in a community that is dependent on seasonal hunting. Treadway is not just a hunter, he is a good one, completely comfortable in a wilderness existence. The birth and survival of his son/daughter/whatever is not a normal part of the Labrador frontier experience — Treadway will have to learn to cope.

Jacinta Blake, Annabel’s mother:

Wayne was born, in bathwater, in the house of his parents, Treadway and Jacinta Blake. Treadway belonged to Labrador but Jacinta did not. Treadway had kept the traplines of his father and he was magnetized to the rocks, whereas Jacinta had come from St. John’s when she was eighteen to teach in the little school in Croydon Harbor, because she thought, before she met Treadway, that it would be an adventure, and that it would enable her to teach in a St. John’s school once she had three or four years experience behind her.

And finally, Thomasina, probably Jacinta’s best friend and soon to be a widow when her blind husband and daughter (also named Annabel) drown in a near spiritual experience. (That is not a spoiler — the incident is related in the novel’s prologue.) Thomasina passes the name Annabel on to the newborn. Thomasina will depart Labrador later in the book for a global tour but she will always maintain contact with Annabel.

For Treadway, the baby will always be a son and his name will be Wayne. Jacinta, while confused, is comfortable with most aspects of the physical dual sexuality. For Thomasina, the child will always be a female named Annabel.

Author Winter not only does a good job throughout this book at exploring the conflicting attitudes these three have towards the child, she also is rigorous about illustrating how they each attempt to influence him/her in their own image. Treadway is determined that his child will know and love the wilderness in the same way that he does. Jacinta is equally determined that she/he be equipped to survive in the “urban” world of St. John’s. And Thomasina is just as devoted to acquainting Annabel with the world beyond the isolated provincialism of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Those three adults and their attempts to influence the child are, to this reader, the driving forces of this novel. At the midway point of the book, Wayne/Annabel is in grade eight and has just discovered her female side — while she will become a more central character for the last half, her confused life will be dependent on those adult influences:

Jacinta was thinking of Wayne’s safety. Part of him knew this, but the new-found part, Annabel, wanted to tell someone. 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 lots 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. Wayne felt this in waves.

Winter’s choice to make her central character intersex certainly creates one story line but it is a tribute to the book that is not the only one, as the author moves into even more confusing territory. Wayne will eventually take himself to St. John’s and that other conflict — the wilderness of Labrador, urban Newfoundland as represented by St. John’s and the broader world that Thomasina is travelling — will become every bit as important. The conflict between wilderness and urbanity is a frequent theme in Canadian literature — the introduction of dual sexuality adds a whole new dimension which makes Annabel a unique addition to the genre:

The city grew oppressive. If it was not formal wear in the Model Shop that disturbed Wayne, with its bridesmaid gowns and tuxedos that reminded him of the travesty of his own prom, it was the homeless people. He felt quizzical gazes from them, as if they recognized something in him. He had expected to have more time than he had to get used to the changes in his body. But his body jumped at the chance to become less like a man and more like a woman. When he had been reducing his pills for just one week, he felt tenderness in his breasts and he felt them start to swell, as if they had been constrained but were now able to expand.

As Wayne/Annabel grows into adulthood, none of the three adult influences on his life is willing to abandon their aspect of the “project”. Now, however, it is no longer a child whom they are attempting to influence but a young adult who is trying to discover his own confused way in the world.

Annabel will not be to everyone’s tastes, but to anyone who appreciated Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex or the far less well-known Two Strand River by Keith Maillard the novel will have much appeal. Like those two novels, this volume uses confused sexuality as a highly effective device to explore in detail some far more conventional issues, faced by far more people. It is not always successful, but the effort alone makes the novel worth the read.

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12 Responses to “Annabel, by Kathleen Winter”

  1. Kerry Says:

    I do like the idea of comparing the conflict between urban/rural as similar between conflicting pulls of gender. While on one level the comparison could be somewhat banal, it sounds like Kathleen Winter delves somewhat deeper and manages to use the two ideas to create a effective intellectual dish. I thought Middlesex was outstanding, so I will keep this one on the radar.

    I have other Canadian fiction to read first, however, thanks to you.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I worry a bit that I might be over-emphasizing the wilderness/urbanity angle but I did find that the similarities and contrasts with the “conflicting pulls of gender” (nice phrase that) were quite well done in the novel. Winter lived in St. John’s for a long time, although she now resides in Montreal — I think her personal experience in moving to a more urban environment is well-reflected in this book.

  3. maggie Says:

    Always enjoy the reviews here as they give a fair chunk of the author’s own writing – I will be ordering this book as well as the E.M. Forster immediately for my library!
    As a former rural Nflder. who went on to urban living – I’m intrigued by the premise.
    It’s timely also with the rural South African runner Semenya’s alleged possible intersex identity causing dilemmas last year. (Thankfully, she got to keep her medal.)
    This book in a competition right now along with many other excellent books to be the “Atlantic Canada Reads” pick. Voting closes tomorrow at midnight. The contest is sponsored by a Nfld. blog, Saltyink – great one for those wanting to learn more about Atlantic Can books.
    Review of Annabel on there:

    http://saltyink.com/2000/06/17/2010-atlantic-canada-reads-laura-repas-defends-kathleen-winters-annabel/

  4. Isabel Says:

    I enjoyed both your review and Kathleen Winter’s post.

    I love reading about the Canadian wilds and need to find this novel.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: I know that you like “cold-weather” novels to offset your steamy New Orleans summer and I think this one qualifies. While only parts of it are set in Labrador winter, even Newfoundland summers are cool by your standards.

  6. KIRBC Interview with Kathleen Winter « The Keepin’ It Real Book Club Says:

    [...] herself. This interview is the last stop on her blog tour, and you can read other great posts at Kevin from Canada,  Serendipitous Readings, Kate’s Book Blog, SaltyInk, and [...]

  7. margaret dorval Says:

    Having finished Annabel earlier this morning I wish to cast my Giller vote for Winter. To be fair I should read at least one more of the finalist novels but I am certain Annabel is a worthy contender.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Margaret: I don’t think the Shadow Jury would be unhappy if this turns out to be the Real Jury’s choice. It is a very good novel.

  9. Deb Says:

    I hate to say this but normally I don’t read a lot of Canadian authors but this book was amazing. Had it read in two days. The characters were believable and treated with respect for their individuality. No one was totally good or bad or perfect or imperfect. As someone who has only managed to get to Newfoundland once Ms. Winters bought me back there again with her vivid descriptions. She reminded me of my favorite author Maeve Binchy who’s write her characters so well you feel you have actually met them.
    Her descriptions of the Labrador makes me want to visit it in the future.

    I hope we will see more from Ms. Winters

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Glad that you liked it, Deb. It is a very good novel.

  11. Shastri Says:

    I adored this novel. I especially liked the way she used language. It is something many-a Canadian writers in particular excel at. Anne Michaels in Fugitive Pieces and Winter Vault, and of course, Michael Ondatje in all of his works. Are there any other Canadian writers you can suggest, Kevin, who use language in unusual and beautiful ways, almost collapsing the boundaries between prose and poetry? I am currently doing an MFA at UMass and would like to create a study group around Canadian writing of this nature

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shastri: I am afraid that poetic or lyric language is low on my list of reading priorities — I would agree that Michaels and Ondaatje are good examples, but I also have to admit that that very feature of their writing is a problem that I have with both. I’m hoping that some other visitors here, who appreciate that aspect of writing more than I do, might come up with some suggestions.

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