Some novels take
you up instantly in their world, and if there are moments when a reader may feel
let down they are not so extensive as to lessen the heights of the achievement.
Annabel by Kathleen Winter is one
The subject is
hermaphroditism, and the main protagonist is Wayne/Annabel, a child born with
both male and female genitalia, which means the novel depicts a world of gender
mythology, intolerance, and human pain. Winter is intelligently sensitive to
this complex and still controversial subject, and her story is acutely observed,
adroit, compassionate and convincing. She achieves this by the use of an
indirect narrative point of view allowing readers to enter the consciousness of
the main characters, enriched by an objective third person narrator who
presents the social and geographic context for what the characters are feeling
We are not played
with here. Plot manipulations or literary pyrotechnics or the merely
sensational do not obtrude, but we are honestly led into the depths of mind and
heart, especially of the intersex child as she matures into the full knowledge
of who she is. She must be one of the most remarkable characters in
contemporary Canadian fiction.
Wayne’s father Treadway
wants the child to be male, to live as a male in a society of norms, rigorous
gender distinctions and duties. His mother Jacinta and her wise friend
Thomasina recognize that Wayne is also female, but the mother accedes to the
father’s will. Thomasina, who sometimes seems a kind of fairy godmother, gives
him a private name, Annabel, after her own child who drowned with her husband
in a boating accident.
One of the glories of this intriguing book is Winter’s
portrayal of a good man deeply committed to his way of life in Labrador, but trapped
by his own masculine and emotional limitations and bewilderment. Indeed, the
life and love of Wayne’s parents, their interaction and private thoughts as
they focus more and more on their growing and changing intersex child, with all
the confusion, suppressed rage, bitterness and arbitrary actions that entails, are
superbly written, often imbuing the most banal facts with a near poetic power:
A family can go on for years without the love that
once bound it together, like a lovely old wall that stays standing long after
rain has crumbled the mortar. Where was Jacinta to go? Back to St. John’s? She
berated herself for not having the courage. It’s amazing how small things keep
you anchored in place – the cake of soap on its little mat with rubber suckers,
the moulded plastic shower stall.… The television with its rabbit ears and its
reruns of Bewitched….None of these things were what Jacinta loved, or even
liked--- but she could count on them, and she could not count on what might
happen if she left Treadway…especially if she took Wayne with her.
Treadway dismantles his son’s private bridge and hideaway, which he
and his friend Wally Michelin -- a girl whose musical precocity isolates her from
other children -- “feminize”, if I may use that charged term here, much to the
father’s chagrin. Treadway’s destruction of Wayne’s fantasy refuge brings all
the father’s turmoil and disappointment and vain hopes into the open. After
that, nothing, as they say, is the same. Winter is laudably adept in how she
portrays the quiet, but great and terrible, consequences of Treadway’s action.
Cover of U.S. (Grove Press) and U.K. (Cape) editions
The father is a
trapper/hunter in Labrador and the mother, born and raised in St. John’s Nfld.,
has tried to learned the ways of and accommodate herself to a landscape as
unlike the city as it is possible to be. The Labrador landscape in Annabel is a real and living presence.
Within this landscape Wayne/Annabel must undergo “male training”, as it were,
by his father, learning about the techniques of survival and sustenance, even
though his natural inclinations and sense of identity are leading the child in
a completely different direction.
And so Wayne leaves Labrador as a very young man
to find his way in the city where he ultimately becomes what she is: Annabel.
In the city -- and St. John’s is vividly rendered in this novel -- Wayne rejects
the medication that has counteracted female tendencies, finds a job delivering
meat in a van, and experiences betrayal and brutality in his efforts to be
comfortable in his own mind and body, to reach out for acceptance and
companionship, and to discover Annabel’s authentic self, mentally and
The heart of the
novel is the brilliant and painful, detailed and multi-layered
depiction of Annabel herself from his earliest years as the boy Wayne to the
excruciatingly awkward and sometimes devastating experiences of the young woman
Annabel in St. John’s. In scene after scene Winter wonderfully conveys a
child’s literal-mindedness and imagination, a child’s consciousness of
physiological transformations and emotional changes, an adolescent’s conflicts
and yearnings, tensions within the family, all complicated by the salient fact
of his/her gender. We are carried profoundly into Wayne/Annabel’s thoughts and
physical sensations, no easy task, I should imagine, and Kathleen Winter
achieves it with an ease and grace that belie the difficulty of writing from
the self-conscious point of view of an intersex child and young adult.
The mall always felt to Wayne as if it were trying to
convince him of an illusion that he was not quite getting. That the world was a
place of glittering lights. That you could show you loved someone by giving her
a new mug with a little white bear inside it….He looked now in the windows of
those stores and tried to catch sight of himself as if he were looking at a
stranger. He tried to see, in the transparent reflections of himself walking
against racks of blazers and halter tops and Italian-style dinnerware, what
other people saw when they looked at him.
There is much more
to this book than I have indicated here: the parallel, interconnected stories of
the teacher Thomasina; of Wayne’s childhood friend, the musically-gifted Wally
who herself endures personal tragedy; of Jacinta’s nervous breakdown; and of the
extraordinary progression of Treadway who comes to St. John’s initially to take
revenge on those who have hurt his child and financially to help his son, now a
daughter. Whether the novel ends happily or sadly is not a consideration in my
reading. All I ask, which Annabel answers,
is that the final chapters be plausible, true to the characters, not arbitrary,
and allow me to say, yes, this novel has taken me up and enlarged my
For Linda Leith's Q&A with Kathleen Winter and Guy Tiphane's comment on this site, please follow this link.
Photo: Joshua Radu.
Kenneth Radu lives near Montreal. The
author of several books, most recently a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia, he is currently working
on new fiction and now and then enjoys writing something else.
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