Before I start my review of Annabel, I want to congratulate Erin on the birth of her sweet baby boy, James! Erin chose this book, and normally she’d be the one writing the review, but she went into labour hours before our book club meeting where we discussed her book! Needless to say, she’s a little preoccupied, so I volunteered to take over the task of writing the review!
Kathleen Winter’s beautiful novel, Annabel, is about a child in 1960s Labrador that is born a hermaphrodite, but raised as a boy named Wayne. Wayne has no idea that he was born with the genitalia of both genders, much less does he know his parents chose his gender for him. His parents, Treadway and Jacinta, and their neighbour, Thomasina (the midwife), are the only three people that are aware of Wayne’s truth. Without understanding why, he is faced with deep confusion over his identity, as he feels like, and at times wishes he were, a girl. An event occurs that results in the revelation to him of the anomaly of his anatomy, and we get to see Wayne try to sort that out, and try to come to terms with why he feels the way he does.
It’s a coming-of-age story that shows Wayne’s struggle in trying to understand who he is, and who he is meant to be. It’s an internal, lonely battle of an alienated child. To be clear, this is not a plot-driven narrative. It’s not an epic story, like I hear Middlesex (a novel with a similar premise) is. Annabel is all about character development. Don’t take that to mean that it’s not an incredibly intriguing book, though. I couldn’t put it down. I was completely wrapped up in Wayne’s life, and found it hard not to love and commiserate with that character. Winter’s words were captivating, both in the imagery and descriptions of Newfoundland, and in the sympathetic and ever-evolving characters she created.
Annabel was an excellent choice for the book club because it created a lot of discussion. It broached a subject that most of us were not too familiar with, or even comfortable with; this discomfort thus raising a lot of questions about topics such as gender identity, whether or not parents should be allowed such a choice, and if some of the events that occur are even physiologically possible. While some of us had very little knowledge of the complicated science associated with an intersex individual, most of us had even less knowledge about the kind of turmoil one must go through when they do not associate with conventional gender orientation.
The notion of contradiction came up in discussion frequently during our meeting, with many of us determined that Wayne was truly one gender or the other. I would argue that Winters intends to leave readers with that kind of question in their minds. In the Goodreads summary of the novel, you will find the following quote:
“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”.
This reaffirms Winter’s purpose: to convey that both the male in Wayne and the female in Annabel are integral to this one conflicted character, when no one, not even the readers, can accept or understand that kind of “contradiction”.
I loved Annabel, and most of the book club really enjoyed it too, with average ratings of about 4/5. I’d recommend this book to you if you enjoy Canadian literature, if you’re not afraid of challenging and sad subject matter, and if you reject society’s restrictions to the black and white polarity of gender roles.
Discussion questions for Kathleen Winter’s Annabel:
- Why do you think Wayne’s parents choose to raise him as a boy?
- Do you think Thomasina ever crossed the line in terms of how she treated Wayne?
- Was Wayne more a girl, or more a boy?
- If Wayne had been raised as a girl, do you think he would have been conflicted in the same way?
- If you were a parent in this scenario, how would you have handled it differently than Jacinta and Treadway?