Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Annabel - Kathleen Winter

I received this book from librarything last July but allowed myself some light reading over the summer, thus creating the delay in this review.

Annabel reminded me of Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides.
"It was as the baby latched on to Jacinda's breast that Thomasina caught sight of something slight, flower-like; one testicle had not descended, but there was something else. She waited the eternal instant that women wait when a horror jumps out at them...As she adjusted the blanket she quietly moved the one little testicle and saw that the baby also had labia and a vagina...Then she said, "I'm going to ask the others to leave, if it's alright with you. We have something to talk about." p. 15,16

However, it is very different in many significant ways. First, Kathleen Winter has set her novel in Croyden Harbour on the southeast coast of Labrador. I have never been to Croyden Harbour, Labrador but imagine it to be an isolated, barren, windswept, desolate corner of Canada -- as opposite as possible from Canada's bustling metropolises of Toronto or Vancouver. A place where close knit communities are capable of survival despite Mother Nature's efforts, a place where everyone knows everyone's business, a place where the banality of life is a constant. The birth of a hermaphrodite in this community would have been a surprise -- had anyone but Thomasina and the parents known. The secrecy that surrounds Wayne/Annabel's birth implies the necessity of shame...something that needs to be hidden because it is somehow wrong.

I also found that Winters focuses her novel on the parents more than the child. After communing with nature, Treadway, the father, decides that they will name this child Wayne and raise him as a boy. The mother, Jacinta acquiesces but in her heart is unsure of this choice. She also regrets the decision to hide the child's condition. "She wished she had told all her friends, the day Wayne was born, that he had been born a hermaphrodite. She wished she had not locked the secret inside her, where it clamoured to get out. Treadway would just have to deal with it...This is my problem, Jacinta thought. I am dishonest. I never tell the truth about anything important. As a result, there is an ocean inside me of unexpressed truth. My face is a mask, and I have murdered my own daughter. p. 142 "But was there a place where she could live with truth instead of lies? Truth or Consequences was another TV show. She could relate to that title. You told the truth or you lived with consequences like these. If you held back truth you couldn't win. You swallowed truth and it went sour in your belly and poisoned you slowly." p. 151 Jacinte's life is full of regret and uncertainty. Treadway, for his part, is similarly tormented and confused. "Wayne had never been able to love the dog Treadway brought home the day he dismantled the Ponte Vecchio. He wanted to love the dog but couldn't, and he blamed his father...Wayne had a dog he could not love though he wanted to love it, and Treadway had a son he could not love though he wanted a son and he wanted to love that son. Father and son suffered from backed up, frozen love, and this ate Jacinta's heart." p. 239

Finally, I found that Winters' treatment of Wayne/Annabel's perspective was typically Canadian: nuanced and sensitive. She understates Wayne/Annabel's confusion which I believe is very realistic. I don't think that people navel-gaze as much as depicted by many authors. In the novel, Wayne/Annabel grapples with his/her sexual identity but also grapples with his day to day existence, his relationships, his future. As an infant, Wayne/Annabel had been taken to a hospital in St. Johns for treatment. Throughout his childhood, he is given pills which cause his/her body to grow into a masculine form. As a young man/woman, he must decide for himself whether or not to continue this course of treatment.

What I found most interesting is the idea that life is simpler if everyone is the same, if we don't have to make our own decisions, if we don't have to tread where no one has dared to tread, if we can simply follow the norm. If there is no norm to follow, life gets murky, certainty becomes uncertain, choices are scrutinized, often regretted and painful.

Annabel is not simply a story about a hermaphrodite growing up in Labrador. It is an examination of the sentient human condition -- where choices are consciously made and consequences are clearly felt.