Friday, May 6, 2011

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Kathleen Winter's debut novel is sensitive, uncomfortable, and feels wholly real.  Believe the hype you've heard about Winter (and if you haven't heard it; then remember you heard it from me first.)  Considering the subject matter, it is uncanny how quickly Winter makes readers identify with both characters and situations.  
Wayne Blake is born a hermaphrodite.  His parents and a close family friend are the only ones who know.  A little bit of surgery, years of social conditioning, and the most masculine yet sensitive father ever, render Wayne, Wayne.  He is a boy.  
Labrador Canada is nearly the book's main character.  It is a harsh untamed land and we see it primarily through the eyes of Wayne's parents: Treadway is a hunter and a trapper and Jacinta manages domestic affairs.  Through the land and indeed both of Wayne's parents, it is hard to find much that is feminine in Wayne's surroundings.  Treadway is an anachronism, and as much as he wants his son to follow in his footsteps his efforts to interest Wayne in the traditional manner that the men of Labrador make their livelihood are fruitless.  Wayne can cut wood, mend fencing and identify many birds and animals at sight but he has no passion for these things.  
There is an element to Wayne's upbringing that doesn't exactly feel false, but nonetheless feels wrong.  Wayne is brought up to be a boy.  He takes hormones to reinforce his boyhood.  Yet there is this striving effort from Jacinta and Thomasina, who was at Wayne's birth and knows his true nature, to quite literally make him a girl.  Jacinta reflects often on how beautiful the word 'daughter' is to her.  Thomasina due to her tragic past, which is spelled out in the book's opening pages, gives Wayne a special name and in turn the novel's title.  While growing up there is never a push for gender parity, but rather an undercurrent to not only acknowledge his feminine side but to live life as a girl.  All of which gives way to some marvelous discussion on parenting in such a unique situation.  None of it felt right to me, but all of it sure did encourage a great story.  
Odd things happen at puberty when Wayne's body goes through some changes.  There is more surgery, and a lot more pills and the beginning of his search for identity.  There is a parallel struggle to reclaim identity in one of Wayne's friends, Wally.  It was a nice subplot that was well managed as both interesting and a vehicle to push Wayne's story along.  
While not the book's main characters Wayne's parents, Treadway and Jacinta were the best drawn.  That they both care and love for their child is never in doubt.  While Wayne struggles and has breakdowns trying to find himself, his parents do the same in an effort to accept their child without labels or trying to place him in a preconceived mould.  There is some soap opera drama and I mean that in the best of ways.  Out of love and concern Treadway scared me to death with his plans to do somethings I'd rather him not have done.  Jacinta needed to be slapped out of malaise far too often and Thomasina, a third parental force, was so out of line from Wayne's baptism forward that I never like her for a moment.  The story is very easy to become involved in and speculate as to what will happen next.  
I do wish there was a bit more confrontation with Treadway and Jacinta.  Their interaction was perfect and felt real, but I can't help but think if they ever wondered about having another child, or even if the topic came up, what they may have expressed to each other about Wayne.  There is also a moment in the end where Wayne seems to make a 'gender doesn't matter' decision by taking some drastic measures; embracing both sides of his dual nature.  I'm not sure if it was Winter's ultimate gesture of acceptance or if the act undermined all the past trials Wayne had gone through.    
The ending is far from 'happily ever after' but is it ultimately very satisfying.  Annabel is a linear tale that was difficult to point out exactly what the story was building toward but there was always enough tension and drama to propel events along.  Excellent storytelling by a very capable writer; a very intimate and personal story that is bound to arouse thought in any sensitive reader.   


Maria said...

I haven't heard of the book or the author (guess I'll have to remember whom I heard it from now), but it sounds like a pretty interesting book. It almost sounds like science fiction -- a new concept to explore the psychology of -- except that these things actually happen and I am pretty sure there was a chapter in my psych 101 textbook on it.

It doesn't sound very cheerful though. I rather like books that end in hope rather than with the feeling of being doomed.

Chad Hull said...

I'm not to sure about the sci-fi vibe but the setting is so well done and Treadway's way out life being so esoteric those elements did almost feel like fantasy. I came close to making mention of that in the actual review; the setting in general was very well done and for anyone who doesn't live in Labrador Canada it's exotic.

Cheerful? No. Absolutely not. I wouldn't want to mislead you. There are bright spots along the way, but the ending is more of a 'everything is gonna be alright' than outright cheerful. But, there is no 'doom' to speak of; well...