Annabel by Kathleen Winter

annabel“The village of Croyden Harbour, on the southeast Labrador coast, has that magnetic earth all Labrador shares. You sense a striation, a pulse, as the land drinks light and emits a vibration. Sometimes you can see it with your naked eye, stripes of light coming off the land. Not every traveller senses it, but those who do keep looking for it in other places, and they find it nowhere but desert and mesa.”

With this magnetic introduction to Croyden Harbour, Kathleen Winter sets the stage for her very sad but beautiful novel about a hermaphrodite born in Labrador in the late sixties. It is a place where people work hard to make a living off the land and a time when gender roles are rigid: men fish and hunt, women bake and preserve. What to do then with a baby who is both boy and girl?

The baby’s father, Treadway, decides to raise his child as a boy. The baby’s mother, Jacinto, has some objections, but she goes along with her husband’s decision, and so Baby Wayne grows up without knowing there is a little girl curled up inside of him. The only person besides the parents who does know about the dual identity is Thomasina, the midwife, who secretly nurtures the female side of Wayne.

As Wayne grows up, Treadway watches like a hawk for signs of femininity in his son. As someone who is more comfortable alone in nature, he tries hard to mold his son into an outdoors person like himself. Jacinto mourns for the daughter she lost and slowly recedes into herself, imagining what she would have said to Wayne if he had been allowed to be a girl. As we see Wayne grow up, the story focuses on different characters and events along the way, allowing us a deeper understanding of the people and their lives.

A family can go on for years without the love that once bound it together, like a lovely old wall that stays standing long after rain has crumbled the mortar.

By the time Wayne hits puberty, his parents have grown apart and he has no one to talk to about the changes in his body, which are naturally more complicated in his case. After a medical crisis, he finally finds out the secret that surrounds him. I found the reason for this medical crisis a little hard to believe, and I am not sure Wayne’s reaction to finding out his true identity were all that realistic, but by this time, I was so engrossed in the story that it didn’t bother me much.

“Love gets blocked if you dam it. Your father builds dams in his sleep. He doesn’t know he’s doing it.” 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.

At this point, I was hoping that Wayne would be able to find some happiness and that father and son would be able to break through the dam of frozen love. Their relationship does improve, and while the end is left open, I was glad that Wayne found a place where he might grow without being stifled.

Even though the story is set at a time and in a place that almost naturally restrict how people react to Wayne’s condition, I found certain aspects to transcend the setting. I think most parents start out with dreams and expectations for their children, and sometimes it can be a struggle to reconcile the dream with reality. And if someone today asked a parent whether the newborn baby was a boy or a girl, and the parent would answer “both,” I don’t think the immediate reaction would be all that much different from what Jacinta imagines her neighbors to say had they not kept the baby’s dual identity a secret. Maybe that is why I found this book so incredibly sad. It speaks to Winter’s ability to gently steer the story, without placing blame or condemning characters for their actions, that I was very moved by the sadness and thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

Annabel was shortlisted for the Women’s Price in 2011 and definitely deserved that spot.

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