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.