by Kathleen Winter (2010)
House of Anansi Press (2010)
464 pp

Fifth and final stop on the 2010 Giller shortlist for me is Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, an intriguing story I’ve been looking forward to reading since I saw KevinfromCanada’s review of it earlier this year. First, there is the cold wilderness setting of Labrador. I like dwelling in harsh weather conditions — in books, that is. But what interested me more was that this setting is used to emphasize themes in a book about an intersex child (intersex is, recently, the politically correct term for those historically called hermaphrodites, though “intersex” too apparently has critics).

Annabel opens up with a mystical (or is it mythological) prologue. A blind hunter and his daughter Annabel are floating on a canoo for the hunting season. The hunter is asleep as the daughter drifts sleepily down the river. Then the daughter spies a white caribou on the shore. As she stands to reach out to the animal, Annabel upsets the boat. Neither she nor her father can swim, and they perish.

In the next scene, Thomasina (the wife and mother of the two who have just drowned) is helping Jacinta Blake give birth. As you may have guessed, when the child is born, neither Thomasina nor Jacinta knows whether it is a boy or a girl. It appears to be both. They will, they know, both love it, but Jacinta wonders, “Will other people love it?”

The baby’s father, Treadway, is a quiet hunter. For much of the year he is gone on his sled. Though Treadway is far from cruel, when he learns of the child’s sex, he ensures that what he feels is right is done. There is little discussion. They will, he determines, raise it as a boy — no one else will know the secret — so the baby is christened Wayne. Thomasina, who has just lost her Annabel, breathes the name Annabel at the christening.

To be honest, I had a hard time with the first half of this rather large book (461 pages, but with relatively large type). We know early on that Treadway will repress everything he can about his daughter and accept only his son. We know that Thomasina is going to do all she can to make sure Wayne understands that he has a feminine side that just might be more prevalent than his male side. Jacinta, meanwhile, is in the center, and she only wants the child to feel loved:

Whereas [Treadway] struck out on his own to decide how to erase the frightening ambiguity in their child, [Jacinta] envisioned living with it as it was. She imagined her daughter beautiful and grown up, in a scarlet satin gown, her male characteristics held secret under the clothing for a time when she might need a warrior’s strength and a man’s potent aggression. Then she imagined her son as a talented, mythical hunter, his breasts strapped in a concealing vest, his clothes the green of striding forward, his heart the heart of a woman who could secretly direct his path in the ways of intuition and psychological insight. Whenever she imagined her child, grown up without interference from a judgemental world, she imagined its male and female halves as complementing each other, and as being secretly, almost magically powerful. It was the growing up part she did not want to imagine.

Nevertheless, the development of these characters is pretty heavy-handed. We get to watch Treadway perk up uneasily, feigning confusion, anytime there is a remote question about Wayne’s gender. He is particularly annoyed by any clues Thomasina, who is quite meddlesome, leaves around. I found the dialogue to be rather long-winded and lacking in natural rhythm. Nevertheless, I was compelled to read the story: even if I felt it was a bit heavy-handed and blunt, I liked where the story was going, and I cared about Wayne and his family. Honestly, it was harrowing to watch as Jacinta is tormented, wishing for a world “in which her child did not have to be confined to something smaller than who he was.”

One of the most effective ways this book got me to think about gender roles was while I read its large tourquoise form, with a cursive Annabel on its spine, on my subway ride.

It becomes, then, a strong argument (if, again, heavy-handed) for self-determination. Eventually Wayne finds out the truth and must go out on his own to figure out just who he is. I found this part of the book very interesting, even if it still seemed to lack the nuance I was hoping for in this novel about the blur between gender identity. I liked, for example, when Wayne struggles with the split in his identity, really trying to find out who it is he’s been locking up inside of him for so many years:

Wayne was glad there were shadows in the store. He wanted the part of him that was Annabel to try the dress on. He longed to take it home and let her dance in it, just one night.

But on the other hand, this is a bit muddled with some heavy-handed tangential issues. For example, Wayne’s best friends while growing up was the free-spirited Wallis Michelin. Treadway, of course, hated the relationship, wishing Wayne would play with the other boys, particularly the popular ones. Wally herself was popular, but not because she tried to be. She was free from those types of cares, and this made her attractive to other people (until the day when her “competitors” try to take her down). Wally loved to sing, and she and Wayne built a bridge (bridges are another symbol that becomes a bit over used) they’d spend hours on. We care for Wally, but sadly she becomes a device to emphasize the search for self-identity: it is tragic, though a bit quaint, when this talented young singer loses her voice in an accident and spends the remainder of the novel trying to figure out how to get it back.

To me, as much as I cared for Wally and felt Wayne’s pain when she begins to drift out of his life, I had a hard time accepting the metaphor and applying it to Wayne / Annabel. It felt reductive (besides convenient and heavy-handed), and, therefore, I didn’t feel it had a place. And that sort of sums up my thoughts: a great promise whose success is reduced by excess.

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