Monday, October 24, 2011


Annabel - A Novel by Kathleen Winter (Jonathan Cape, 2010), 457 pages

What a beautiful and strange book this is ... A baby is born with both male and female genitalia in the small town of Croydon Harbour in Labrador in 1968. He is a hermaphrodite (now referred to as the more politically correct "intersex"). The doctors decide that s/he is sufficiently male that s/he should assume a male identity - aside from the doctors only the parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and the midwife Thomasina, know the baby's secret. The child himself has no knowledge of why he is different, he only knows that he is. A simple operation while he is a baby literally seals his fate. They call him Wayne.

Thomasina, after a personal tragedy in which she loses her daughter who is named Annabel, secretly names little Wayne "Annabel". Thomasina soon leaves Labrador and pursues a life away in Europe away  from her cloistered, narrow-minded community sending postcards of bridges to Wayne (a metaphor for Wayne's halfway state between male and female?). She studies to be a teacher and will soon return to Croydon Harbour.

Jacinta dislikes and fears the fact that they have been forced to embrace one gender identity over the other. I am unsure that, as a mother, Jacinta would not want Wayne’s sex defined. I think that not because it’s wrong to do so, but because I think a mother would imagine a world of heartbreak for that child if it was not clearly defined.

Jacinta's world - the domestic sphere - and Treadway's world - the outdoors, a life of hunting, providing for his family, etc... - are beautifully realized on the page. I am unsure if this was Winter's intention or not but it makes each parent's separate pursuit of maintaining a home and livelihood seem dignified and worthwhile as if to say that the male and the female spheres are both worthy of respect.

Winter works hard to convince us about Treadway’s anxiety concerning Wayne’s gender identity. Too hard … we understand completely that his father wants him to pursue “manly” pursuits, to take a "healthy" interest in girls, which Wayne simply refuses to do although he tries very hard to make his father happy. This section could have benefited from a strenuous edit.

Wayne's friendship with the little girl Wally Michelin, his lack of interest in Treadway’s more traditional pursuits, even the way Wayne chooses to “decorate” his fort all cause Treadway consternation. Treadway eventually tears it down and buys Wayne a puppy to compensate for this cruel act. But Wayne's sense of hurt and betrayal won't allow him to love or care for the puppy.

Thomasina returns and tries to minister to the child - who is suffering from mysterious pains in his stomach. As it turns out Wayne has the internal organs of a female (a uterus and ovaries) and has begun to menstruate but cannot express this physically due to the operation. Thomasina takes the child in for treatment without his parents' permission.

An operation is performed to release the blood and Thomasina is suspended for taking a child off the school premises without permission. Even with the surgery, husband and wife cannot discuss Wayne's state. However, a secret dialogue commences between Wayne and his mother where he urges his mother to tell him how he resembled a girl as he grew. This is never within Treadway's hearing.

So Wayne's secret is finally revealed to him ... which adds a layer of complexity to Wayne's emotional and sexual life. If he is a girl "inside" why does he get aroused when Grace Watts rubs up against him? Why does he still long for Wally Michelin? Will anyone discover his secret even though he looks and "acts" like a boy now?

Still, Thomasina passes in and out of his life like a one woman Greek chorus commenting on Wayne's travails - now traveling through the world, now sometimes serving as a substitute teacher at the local school. She reveals an awful truth about that night in the hospital. The truth eventually propels Wayne out of Labrador to St. John's. His only regret is leaving his mother:
Wayne's sadness over Jacinta was the sadness all sons and daughters feel when their ferry starts moving and the parent stands on the dock, waving and growing tiny. A sadness that stings, then melts into a fresh wind.

St. John's is both better and worse  for Wayne. Wayne buys a van and gets a job selling meats door to door. He is beset by loneliness but freedom comes too. However, when important government documents arrive which Wayne must sign to get coverage for his medication (male hormones to enhance his masculine characteristics) he decides to flush the pills away. He decides to visit the local hospital to relieve the pressure in his abdomen that begins to mount again.

He confides in a sympathetic casual acquaintance named Steve about his intersex state. The secret is too big, too sensational, and Steve shares it with an unfortunate choice which leads to a violent situation.Winter rarely misses in Annabel but here she does. When Wayne is taunted and on the verge of being assaulted by a gang of boys his thoughts run to this dreamy, semi-conscious passage beginning with: "Beauty is gone .."

Now, I can't speak to this issue definitively as I have never experienced this situation but this feels false to me - an attempt to create a literary moment for the reader, a poetic moment, that is not related to the authenticity of the moment.

Surprisingly, things begin to get better for Wayne after this and I think this is largely because when Wayne tells Thomasina about the incident, Thomasina confides in Treadway who comes to St. John's to offer support for his son for the first time. One anticipates a bleak ending however this is not so - it is a hopeful ending. In a way this is a relief for the reader but it is also a bit of a sham. How does this unique person navigate the rest of his life? We are left with the impression that things have turned out well, but how so, how do things turn around? Is this an honest ending or and ending concocted because the writer (and we) don't want to see Wayne suffer any more?

Kathleen Winter