Annabel is Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, having previously published a collection of short stories and having written scripts for the CBC and Sesame Street. It is the story of a true hermaphrodite born in a tiny community in Labrador, an expansive landscape with constrictive social mores. The child is raised as a boy, as it seems the easiest path to his father Treadway and his doctors, but Wayne’s mother Jacinta and family friend Thomasina (the only people who know the truth) are not convinced and wish Wayne could grow up as something more than just a boy or a girl. In fact, Thomasina calls Wayne “Annabel” as a child, after her daughter that had died, and Jacinta secretly takes care of the daughter she sees in Wayne despite his father’s attempts to make him as masculine as possible. The quiet conflict over Wayne’s gender is kept a mystery from him until there is a medical emergency as a teenager, but the tension is palpable throughout his childhood and results in enormous silences in his family. As Wayne grows towards adulthood, he moves away from home and begins to experiment with his identity, both by giving up the drugs that keep him male and by showing him possible futures that don’t depend on gender.
Despite all the tensions, Wayne tries hard to please both his parents as he grows up, but eventually all three of them feel trapped by the house that they live in. Much of the book is about identity, and it is a challenge for all of the characters, not just Wayne, although Wayne is a wonderful, courageous and entirely relatable character. Annabel also has wonderfully detailed descriptions about Labrador and parts of St. John’s, in addition to descriptions of lives lived in a wilderness that might not exist in the same way today. Winter also grounds the story with mentions of late 1970s/early 1980s cultural references, including listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 on the radio (in my experience, something rural Canadians counted on for pop music at the time, along with Friday Night Videos) and references to the appropriate sports events and popular candy – the detail is there, but not obvious.
This book is beautifully written and paced, enormously compelling. I have only two complaints, the first being that the story seems to abandon Jacinta for the last third of the novel. Jacinta was central in the first part of the book, but I wonder if Winter kind of wrote herself into a corner with her, out of ideas for how she could grow. It seems strange that she was so central to Wayne’s childhood, but all later parental references were to Treadway and we don’t have any idea about how or where she ended up. My other complaint is with the second secret that was kept from Wayne after his medical emergency. More specific detail might spoil the story, but the physical impossibility of the incident mars a story that otherwise seems so grounded and relatable, and I don’t think that it improves the story.
Annabel has been nominated for several awards, deservedly so. It is an excellent novel, and deals with the subject matter in a non-sensationalist manner. The only other novel I recall dealing with a similar theme is Jeffery Eugenides’ Middlesex, but I have not read it and cannot compare the two. I highly recommend Annabel.