From Kenneth Radu: Reading Kathleen Winter’s Annabel
7 September 2011

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 such novel.

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 and thinking.

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 physically.

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 understanding.

For Linda Leith's Q&A with Kathleen Winter and Guy Tiphane's comment on this site, please follow this link
Kenneth Radu
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.
Comments on blog posts are welcome. You are invited to register below.

More Articles