It is practically a cliché to talk about how you love reading because it can take you into experiences you may never have. Whether it's a book about travel, adventure or just another person's life, books offer up a wealth of vicarious experiences. It's rare, however, to read a book about an experience that is totally unpredictable. Most stories follow something resembling a formula (which is not to say that most stories are formulaic, but you do typically know whether the story you're picking up will end happily or not), so it is rare to find a novel that does something new while remaining accessible. In her novel Annabel, Kathleen Winter challenges her reader to enter a world they may not find particularly comfortable, while at every turn, giving them a reason to stay for just a bit longer.
Annabel is the story of Wayne Blake, a baby born in Labrador in 1968; a baby born with both male and female genitalia; a baby born half as a female who is raised as a boy. In Labrador, in 1968, having a child who is intersex is not something to talk about, and consequently the only people in the know are Wayne's parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and their neighbour Thomasina, who was present at his birth. The doctor in Goose Bay decides that Wayne's baby penis is long enough for him to be raised as a boy, so, despite Jacinta's misgivings, Wayne undergoes surgery and leaves the hospital visibly male.
But life is never so cut and dried. Wayne isn't very old when he discovers synchronized swimming and becomes entranced by the bathing suits the women wear. He wants one, and the scene in which Jacinta tries to explain to her son why he can't have one is just heartbreaking – even more so when you learn that he is secretly saving his money so he can order one from Sears. As much as Wayne tries to be interested in the traditional trades of hunting and trapping, Treadway's passions, he is just more interested in drawing and dancing. From the very beginning, Wayne does not fit into the mold of a Labrador son.
But neither is Wayne so completely female that you can entirely blame the doctor for making the wrong choice. Rather, he is an equation for which there is not correct answer in our society. When people are set up as binaries, what can we do about someone who fits neither side completely? Wayne, of course, does not know or understand any of this. Rather, he is in the dark about the way he was born, and although he takes hormones every day, he does not understand what the pills are for. It is only after he hits puberty and starts to develop breasts and then has a shocking and rather horrifying medical emergency that he learns the truth. And it is Thomasina, who has known from the beginning and used to call him "Annabel" when they were along together and is now his teacher, who breaks the silence.
Jacinta is, in many ways, relieved that Wayne knows the truth. Jacinta never wanted to change her baby, and has secretly nurtured Wayne's feminine side since he was a child. Treadway, on the other hand, has never been comfortable with what his son means. As a father, Treadway loves Wayne, but he does not know where or how he fits into the world, which makes him uncomfortable and uneasy. Treadway starts to spend more and more amount of time out in the bush, on his traplines, leaving an increasingly unstable Jacinta at home with Wayne.
Watching Wayne's coming of age is extremely awkward. But Winter is very precise in her language of gender and identity, which helps you keep up with Wayne as he moves through the world, first in and around his community in Labrador, and later, when he has moved to St. John's. Wayne's story is difficult to read because it is uncertain and emotionally raw. There is no distance from what happens and where his life goes, and because we follow him so closely, when something horrible happens (and it does) there is now safe place, either for you or for Wayne. Winter's writing is so clean that it doesn't feel like reading, and Wayne's pain becomes your pain, just as his risks and triumphs become yours.
Annabel offers no easy answers, filled as it is with characters that are so real in their complexity that you can practically feel their breath coming out of each page. And Winter expects her readers to be equally as complex, giving you space to fill in parts of the story with your own emotions and experiences. Giving yourself over to this novel is well worth it, though. The incredible descriptions of landscapes and cities, coupled with the quite intense emotional impact, will give you something quite real to think about between each chapter and for long afterward. Of all the characters you read about, Wayne Blake and those close to him are not ones you will soon forget.
by Kathleen Winter
First published in 2010 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press)