Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Kathleen Winter's Annabel

I'm planning to write a post responding to Hope's question (at this post) about how I found time to read while raising my children, and how I continue to structure pockets of reading time into my life. But I've had to balance this against keeping up with recording my reading and with getting a piece of writing done to justify my Research Leave. That essay's just waiting for a good proof-reading now, so task #1, updating my recent reading list. Hope's response to come soon. Thanks for your patience!

I'm working my way through a stack of books that arrived before Christmas, and they've been very pleasurable, all. The first to tell you about is Kathleen Winter's novel, Annabel, which came to my attention courtesy of my neighbour, Carol, who I believe heard Winter read at the Vancouver Writers' Festival. When Carol mentions a book worth reading, I pay attention, and I was well rewarded with this rich story about a young hermaphrodite, surgically rendered male shortly after birth. Growing up in a small and remote Labrador community, Wayne is happy enough in his early years, close to his mother, trying to please his father, but increasingly feels himself alienated from his classmates, puzzled by something in himself that doesn't fit and especially by his attraction to an aesthetic appreciation the rough landscape and community doesn't easily support.

While it would have been easy to set up Wayne's father, Treadway, as a harsh and insensitive man, Winter makes it clear that he acts in what he believes are his son's best interests. Not until it is almost too late does he realize that he hasn't looked out, though, for his daughter (who comes to be known as Annabel). While it might be easier for us to condemn Treadway, the narrator refuses us such simplicity by detailing his nature-based spirituality, his commitment to reading and philosophy, and his appealing competence in caring for his family. The relationship between Treadway and his wife seems doomed after Wayne leaves for the city, but the narrator convincingly twists them back together, using those threads spun in the novel's early pages, merely unravelled by the strain of trying to meet their son/daughter's needs.

Labrador and its people are magnificently portrayed here in a harshness and a beauty I have not yet experienced but would now love to (although perhaps in summer, rather than winter!). Without saying enough to spoil the plot, I can say that the novel is, ultimately, redemptive, though not without considerable pain. Much of the redemption comes in other, smaller characters, in the realization that many people are better than we might first assume, and given the chance, may surprise us with their humanity. There is a spot or two in the book's first few chapters where the narrator veered a bit toward the pedagogic (commenting on the school system's rigidity), and I held my breath, prepared to be disappointed, but excepting those passages, the novel shows rather than tells.

I'm assuming (hoping) that the novel is based on either research or personal experience of the area (the author is, apparently, a long-time resident of St. John's, Newfoundland, although she now lives in Montreal) -- I want it to be true that many of the trappers who stayed out on their lines through the trapping season read such worthy texts as Pascal's Pensées in their cabins at night.

Although much of the novel is set in a tiny, insular community, that community is regularly contrasted with the possibilities of the wider world by two characters in particular, as well as by the yearnings of Wayne's mother, Jacinta. And while Treadway is not one of the novel's travellers, one of my favourite insights in the book comes when Treadway advises Wayne not to drive his van when he visits a friend in Boston. As he says,
You want to sit back and look out the windows at everything. You don't want the trip to be one road sign after another and a maze of overpasses. Trains and ferries will give you a real journey to Boston. Your van is a responsibility. Navigating is a chore. A train will take the weight of the world away. I think Via Rail could pay Winter for this passage, a lovely bit of persuasion toward train travel.

Above all, while telling a richly satisfying story and offering an evocative setting, this book makes us wonder why we insist so much on seeing physical and behavioural differences between the genders when there are, in fact, so many similarities we could focus on. Few of us mind that we can't tell at a glance whether a cat or dog or horse is male or female, yet many of us are disturbed if we can't identify someone as "he" or "she." And, of course, in European-based languages, we can scarcely think of individuals, let alone speak of them, without knowing what pronoun to use. Showing us the pain caused to a young child by the arbitrary application of a gender is a compelling invitation to open our thinking. I highly recommend this novel for your reading pleasure and would love to know what you think of it, should you read it or have already read it.


  1. Okay I've just added this one to the list despite saying that I wouldn't add anything new.

  2. I don't think you'll be sorry, Mardel, and I'd love to hear what you think, when you get round to it.

  3. This sounds very interesting. There was a book out a few years ago that was a 'real life' case of a boy who was brought up a girl because of a botched circumcision - I didn't read it, but I read about it. And for hermaphroditism, I couldn't go past Middlesex ... Annabel sounds like a more measured read.

  4. I also remember that non-fiction book. And Middlesex, which I thought was a wild romp pulling together Greek mythology, the American immigrant saga, incest, war, politics . . . Annabel is much gentler, at least partly in response to the sparser, bleaker landscape that forms the backdrop. I think you'd enjoy it.