17th Mar 2011
Annabel by Kathleen Winter
The story begins with the birth of a hermaphrodite baby to near-estranged parents in the frozen Canadian village of Labrador, where fashions are years behind the times, it’s too cold for cows to survive and the community’s men are away, hunting and trapping, for months at a time.
When Wayne is born, his parents decide to keep his intersex status a secret. Apart from close family friend Thomasina, no-one (not even Wayne himself) knows the details of his surgery and daily medication.
But from an eight-year-old’s fascination with synchronised swimming to adolescent confusion and anxiety, the female identity within Wayne won’t stay suppressed.
His mother’s sanity seems to be deteriorating, while his father is as stoic, silent and emotionally distant as ever.
Against a hostile, inhospitable landscape and in a claustrophobically close community where everyone knows each other’s business inside out, gender roles are strictly prescribed, and Wayne’s unease within his own intersex body as it evolves is deftly and beautifully described.
The story unfolds with beautiful, bare language and melancholic grace, although at times the pace is tediously slow, jarring with the rushed, sentimental ending.
An ambitious and original debut, Annabel has already had many a rave review, but for me it fell short of the hype.
Although Treadway and Jacinta , Wayne’s parents, are sympathetically portrayed, they remain dislocated and distant from their child, leaving him alienated and alone.
Like Wayne, they are confused and frustrated, but the readers’ empathetic connection to them is minimal. There is a cold cruelty to their detachment, and one which is difficult to reconcile with the book’s ultimate resolution.
That said, the characters are well-crafted and the bitter confines of Labrador skilfully evoked. Already shortlisted for both Canada’s major literary awards, this won’t be the last we see of Kathleen Winter. And with such cinematic qualities to the language and landscape of Annabel, a film adaptation can’t be far behind.
Recommended for: Readers with a penchant for stories of parental love, loyalty and protection, and anyone with an interest in the fluidity of gender and gender roles.
Other recommended reading: Jeffrey Eugenides‘ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex, which traces three generations of hermaphrodite narrator Calliope’s family history.