Saturday, January 22, 2011

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

In a small community in Labrador in 1968, an unusual baby is born at home. The child has a very small penis, one testicle, and a vagina. This is the story of his life; his, because his father decides that he will have a son called Wayne. Thomasina, who was there to assist at his birth, calls him Annabel, after her dead daughter. Wayne's mother always regrets that surgery was imposed upon her child, wishing it was possible to raise the child as neither male nor female, or both.

The circumstances of Wayne's birth are kept secret from everyone else in town, including Wayne. His father, a hunter and trapper, tries to make him as tough as possible. "The child knew that a grim, matter-of-fact attitude was required of him by his father, and he learned how to exhibit such an attitude, and he did not mind it because it was the way things were, but it was not his authentic self." Wayne is careful to express his artistic side only in private: dancing, dreaming and drawing. Yet his outward appearance cannot be hidden, especially with the onset of puberty.

Lyric prose brings readers into the wilderness and the kitchens of Labrador - the latter being closely tied to the former. "Thomasina was boiling partridgeberries and sugar, and the kitchen was full of their bloody, mossy tang that smells and tastes more of regret than of sweetness."

The issue of gender identity for an intersex individual is handled with grace by author Kathleen Winter. Wayne and his parents and Thomasina are portrayed with warmth and depth. Each one of them is lonely, yet they persevere. The reward is hope and possibility.

Readalikes: The Winter Vault or Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (for the poetic writing style) or Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (for a more sensational treatment of an intersex protagonist).

2 comments:

Sally Sapphire said...

I agree with you on the lyrical prose and the grace with which Kathleen handles the issue of gender identity, but I found the characters cold and emotionless. I liked the writing, and admired the story, but had trouble making a connection to anybody (including Wayne/Annabel).

Lindy said...

I would call the characters - especially Wayne and his family - tightly self-contained, rather than cold. Anne Michaels and Jane Urquart do this with their characters too. I felt that the harsh Labrador landscape had shaped personalities almost as much as it shaped the lifestyles of the people living there.