So I was at my local Chapters drooling over my books when my husband finally insisted “just buy one then already!” The Canada Reads 2014 list had just come out and I headed over to the display rack containing the books. I picked up “Annabel” by Kathleen Winter and commented to him, “I have been looking at buying this book for awhile now. The cover looks so familiar to me.” I arrived home and went to place the book in its W place on my bookshelf when I discovered a copy of the book already sitting there. I began laughing as I remembered picking out that book from a stack of potentials at my trip to The Book Vault in Stratford that summer. No wonder the cover looked familiar to me!
Well, my fascination with this book was well founded and I applaud Canada Reads for having this book in their selection this year. The book was exquisitely written with beautiful portrayals of complex characters and descriptions of the Labrador landscape. “Annabel” is about a child born as a hermaphrodite in a small town in Labrador in the 1960s. This book explores how the parents’ decision to chose the gender of the child, who they name Wayne, affects his identity. And yet despite the obvious physical anatomy and the cultural expectations for him to be a boy, there are parts of himself he thinks of as “Annabel” and a yearning towards the feminine that remains despite the forced gender selection by his parents and the doctors.
Balance is the word that keeps coming to mind when I think of how Winter writes this story. She balances the complexity of Wayne’s inner and outer gender characteristics while also not overdramatizing so he no longer fits into the normal landscape of his Labrador society. Most of his gender complexities remain a private ground for him and she describes these complexities so well that you feel like you understand Wayne and Annabel. And when adult Wayne does explore his gender confusion outwardly, Winter does not shy from the reality of reactions to this man/woman duality including a heartbreaking humiliation perpetuated by cruel teens on Wayne. She writes this struggle of identity in a very real world setting.
Winter also balances the inner battle of the parents about their child’s identity while maintaining a level of family calm. Yes, there are family issues but they don’t seem that different from the struggles that parents face as they raise a family. Winter also highlights their own strange idiosyncrasies: Jacinta’s habits that cause her to descend into a period of madness and Treadstone’s choice of nature over people to the point where he is getting guidance from owls instead of his wife. However, even this strangeness is counterbalanced when Winter reflects on how the townspeople continue to paint Jacinta and Treadstone as normal Labrador folk. I think this exploration shows that the “abnormal” (like hermaphrodites) are not so different from the “normal” we uphold in our society.
This book outlines the dichotomy of how in a society where things are starkly black and white, the grey situations still survive and remain within it. And when these grey situations come to light, Winter doesn’t try to separate them and wrap them up neatly. Although Jacinta and Treadstone seem to find some sense of peace in their own lives and with their child’s identity, there is still a sense of incompletion because it is one of the few points in the book where we don’t get to see how their inner thoughts brought them to that point. Jacinta’s thoughts get subdued in her depression and Treadstone’s musings are lost in the wilderness. Most of all, Wayne finds a place where he can be dual-gendered; Winter doesn’t force him to be less complex and choose. I like the sense of ambiguity that Winter ends her story with and the fact that we don’t need to know if Wayne is acting, dressing, or functioning as a man or a woman. He is simply Wayne and Annabel, with all that encompasses, who manages to find people and a place who accept him as she is. Excellent read that provoked a lot of thought and told beautiful journeys.
5/5 bacon strips (yep, it was that good!)