Review: Annabel by Kathleen WinterAnnabel by Kathleen Winter
Published by House of Anansi Press on May 31st, 2010
Genres: Literary Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchase

Kathleen Winter’s luminous debut novel is a deeply affecting portrait of life in an enchanting seaside town and the trials of growing up unique in a restrictive environment.

In 1968, into the devastating, spare atmosphere of the remote coastal town of Labrador, Canada, a child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor fully girl, but both at once. Only three people are privy to the secret: the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbor and midwife, Thomasina. Though Treadway makes the difficult decision to raise the child as a boy named Wayne, the women continue to quietly nurture the boy’s female side. And as Wayne grows into adulthood within the hyper-masculine hunting society of his father, his shadow-self, a girl he thinks of as "Annabel," is never entirely extinguished.

Kathleen Winter has crafted a literary gem about the urge to unveil mysterious truth in a culture that shuns contradiction, and the body’s insistence on coming home. A daringly unusual debut full of unforgettable beauty, Annabel introduces a remarkable new voice to American readers.

We are in 1968. A small coastal village of Labrador sees the birth of a baby with ambiguous sexual traits. At the hospital, it’s a mere ruler who decides upon the infant’s fate: “Penis size at birth is the primary criterion for assigning a gender” explains the doctor. A boy, then: Wayne. All his female features are then concealed through surgery and the child enters a life-long hormone-therapy. In the village, no one must know: the condition of Wayne is kept a secret as if it was the biggest shame. However, his mother longs for the suppressed daughter buried in him, while his father is desperate to make a real man of his offspring.

Annabel isn’t about a medically accurate case of hermaphroditism—true cases like Wayne’s have never been documented so far—but about the feelings of individuals dealing with any sort of gender identity issues, from gender dysphoria (children identifying to another gender they were born into) to intersex people (children born with both male and female characteristics). The book deals with gender stereotypes, stiff social roles, social pressure, and their impact on the child and their family.
This is why Annabel is a deeply contemplative novel. We witness a mother’s grief for a daughter who wasn’t allowed to be; a father’s anguish that his son doesn’t seem to be manly enough; the powerless compassion of a family friend who is desperate to help Wayne; and the complicated, painful feelings of the child himself, who believes he doesn’t fit in and doesn’t understand why exactly.
The most fascinating aspect of the book is everyone’s relationship to Wayne’s condition: how they perceive it, how they cope with it and how it changes them. The plot is a real whirl of intense and conflicting emotions.

I thoroughly loved Annabel. However, there were a few aspects of the book which bothered me.
First, gender was approached as a very immutable, biology-tied concept. Although Annabel obviously challenges the society to accept atypical individuals, it does so by constantly genderizing activities and tastes: synchronized swimming and fashion are apparently a girl thing, while hunting and building tree houses are a boy thing. In the book, beauty is perceived as a female (desirable) trait, and practicality a male one. Annabel—Wayne’s female side—is always fighting back in him, as if their traits were incompatible and couldn’t express themselves at the same time. I would have liked Wayne to accept all his traits as belonging to his personality, instead of attributing them to his manliness or femininity.

Second, I felt that Wayne’s biological condition was treated with too much realism considering his case is actually closer to fantasy (Wayne is supposed to be a true hermaphrodite, sexually functional, with no visible impairment linked to his condition). Several events in the story aren’t even likely but since the medical scenes are precise and detailed, let alone gritty, it looks like they are supposed to be true to reality. I thought it was misleading and unnecessary to the story.

Third, Wayne’s sexual orientation was completely ignored. As Wayne reaches his teenage years, I expected his attraction to men or women to be discussed. After all, even kids with no gender identity issues often go through a phase with ambivalent feeling toward both sex. However, Wayne’s first relationship is uneventful, with no mention of how his body might appear different to his partner, or how differently the woman and man in him might have experienced this relationship.

Finally, I found that the case of Wayne wasn’t fair. Wayne is depicted as a true hermaphrodite who was assigned a male gender at birth but is truly both gender at the same time. However, in the story, he only seems to suffer from not being a woman! At no point I felt that Wayne embraced his “male” side, or traits that society attributes to men. It was just the body and role he was stuck into. The whole book is about the repressed woman to come out of Wayne, so I would really argue that Annabel is not a novel about accepting intersex people, but a novel about accepting gender fluidity and transitioning. In some way, Wayne didn’t even need to be born intersex. He could have been born with in a male body and later found that he identified more as a girl and the story would have been nearly identical. Also, if Wayne had been assigned a girl gender at birth, there would be no story!

All this being said, I really loved Annabel. I deeply felt for Wayne, enjoyed witnessing the different ways his relatives were dealing with his condition, and following his choices into adulthood and his quest for inner peace. I believe the book is not only a gripping, beautifully written novel, but a thought-provoking story that challenges society’s perception of gender. Highly recommended!