Quill & Quire
A universal concern – the importance of self-determination – takes a highly specific form in Kathleen Winter’s first novel, the story of an intersex child born in a remote coastal Labrador village in 1968. Intersex births are considerably more common in real life than in fiction, and Montreal-based Winter has followed up her Metcalf-Rooke Award–winning short story collection BoYs with a thoughtful treatment of this rarely discussed topic. Despite a few plot and pacing stumbles, Annabel is a dramatic, thematically rich novel.
Intersex conditions arise when a person is born with atypical reproductive or sexual anatomy. The key concern of intersex advocates is whether infant bodies and genitalia should be surgically altered to match societal expectations. The long-term ramifications of such decisions form Annabel’s narrative backbone. Winter also considers the broader effect of gender constraints, particularly how these vary between smaller rural settlements and urban environments.
When Jacinta Blake gives birth in the bathtub of her house in the village of Croydon Harbour, her close friend Thomasina is the first to notice that the newborn possesses a combination of male and female parts. Thomasina begins to refer to the baby as Annabel, in tribute to her own lost daughter, who died along with her father in a boating accident. But Jacinta’s husband, Treadway, an outdoorsman and trapper, decides he wants to raise a male heir.
The child is christened Wayne and taken to Goose Bay General Hospital for an operation designed to render him more convincingly male. But the surgical alteration must be bolstered by expensive hormonal medications, the true purpose of which Wayne doesn’t learn until the onset of puberty. Experiencing a confusing identification with femininity from early boyhood, Wayne grows up an outsider, and eventually relocates to St. John’s, where he struggles to take greater control of his body and identity.
Winter’s skilful prose, rooted in a vivid sense of place, captures a particular historic moment. In tiny Croydon Harbour and the surrounding wilderness, “where caribou moss spreads in a white-green carpet,” both men and women are required to be resilient in order to survive, but their respective roles are clearly defined. The townspeople’s expectations are flouted when a boy resists acting in a masculine way, or when young people abandon their roots and strike out for the big city.
Winter employs details that are specific and effective, be they local culinary specialties, like partridgeberry loaf, or the artifacts of Wayne’s coming of age in the 1980s, such as his Spirograph toy or America’s Top 40 with radio host Casey Kasem. Winter captures the essence of childhood using simple but evocative references – one girl’s method of biting the peanuts off an Oh! Henry bar, for example, or the feel of sinking one’s teeth into a pencil.
The novel is thematically sophisticated, particularly in its exploration of travel and aging as ways of escaping social strictures. This is especially evident in Thomasina, who serves as a role model for young Wayne. Winter also examines the notion of colonization and its impact on land and people, starting with the historic arrival of European missionaries on the Labrador shore, and suggesting that Wayne’s body has been commandeered by medical authorities whose dictates have more to do with maintaining a gendered social order than with his own happiness and fulfillment. To her credit, Winter largely avoids using overt symbolism to depict Wayne’s condition, rightly realizing that to be born intersex is not an intrinsic embodiment of either dualism or ambiguity – an intersex person is simply a person.
That said, the story does feature a medical subplot that strives to operate as a metaphor for how Wayne’s identity transcends a single gender. This subplot strains credulity, and the novel would have been stronger without it. Most readers, even those knowledgeable about intersex conditions, will doubt whether what is described is even physically possible. Similarly, the main plot at times relies on perfect coincidences that may snap readers out of the otherwise effective spell that Winter has cast.
Another distraction recurs over the book’s four-hundred-plus pages. Whenever a significant confrontation occurs – for instance, when Wayne’s father criticizes Thomasina for hinting about Wayne’s gender differences – the reader is treated to a lengthy digression about what is going on in each character’s mind, an authorial strategy that tries the reader’s patience. There is only one instance in the book where this device works well – during a brutal physical assault – because here it creates a sense of disorientation and dissociation.
Despite certain distracting elements, Annabel is an impressive first novel. Wayne’s driving preoccupation – how to discover and inhabit a distinct identity while simultaneously finding a place in the world at large – affects his parents and peers in ways that Winter explores subtly and in depth. Although a number of loose narrative ends are tidied up in the novel’s closing chapters, the central question of Wayne’s future remains unanswered. But his inner journey mirrors that shared by many Canadians, whose identities arise out of a sense of home, and the process of leaving that home behind.
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. . . a poignant and powerful first novel . . . (Donna Bailey Nurse Montreal Gazette
[Kathleen Winter's] lyrical voice and her crystalline landscape are enchanting. (Sally Law New Yorker
Annabel is an unforgettable novel of struggles, personal and inter-personal, and Winter's empathetic voice does them justice in a way that connects reader to story. Destined to be one of the biggest novels out of Newfoundland this year, this is a story of isolation and a communication breakdown that breaks a family down, and breaks the reader down along with them. (Chad Pelley St. John's Telegram
A book like this, its topic and beautiful language, the unrelenting sorrow, Winter's insightful characterizations and utter sensitivity, is difficult to do justice to with these few words. I simply want to tell people: read this book. Read it though you know little or nothing about its subject or the author. It will open you up. It will change you. (Ottawa Citizen
This is a remarkable first novel, an accomplished debut by an exciting new voice with a confident, mature style. (Vanessa Berridge Daily Express
...a sprawling book filled with musical prose... (Emily Landau The Walrus
. . . beautifully paced, sometimes shocking and never prurient. (Maggie Fergusson Intelligent Life Magazine
Reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides' magnificent 2002 novel Middlesex, Winter's treatment of such a delicate issue is amazing and incredibly engaging. Her novel is written with immense sensitivity and grace, not to be missed. (Jim Piechota Bay Area Reporter
. . . Annabel is a novel about divisions, not only between the sexes but also between social classes and, perhaps most crucially, ways of being . . . Winter does a deft job of developing all the characters fully and making their motives understandable . . . It's to Winter's credit that both the fear and the beauty are given vivid expression in this finely crafted novel. (Barbara Carey Toronto Star
Winter's dazzling debut addresses the riddle of gender and the tragedy of conformity with astonishing insight and eloquence. (Richard Labonte Gay Calgary and Edmonton Magazine
...a stunning novel, one of the rare kind that might well imbed itself permanently in a reader's psyche. (Rosalie MacEachern New Glasgow News
. . . a captivating romantic novel with a happy ending. (Jim Taylor Canadian Literature
Annabel's strength lies in probing the dilemma of sexuality and self-knowledge. I have never read such an intimate portrait of a person struggling to live inside a self that the world sees as a dreadful mistake. (National Post
Read it because it's a story told with sensitivity to language that compels to the last page, and read it because it asks the most existential of questions. Stripped of the trappings of gender, [Kathleen] Winter asks, what are we? (Globe and Mail
. . . utterly original . . . a haunting story of family, identity, and the universal yearning to belong. (O Magazine
. . . a confident, serious debut. (Carrie O'Grady Guardian
Annabel is a stunning and stirring debut that signals the long-overdue arrival of a literary talent. (Halifax Chronicle Herald
The Montreal-based Winter, a native of Newfoundland, possesses a rare blend of lyrical brilliance, descriptive power and psychological and philosophical insight...A compelling, gracefully written novel about mixed gender that sheds insight as surely as it rejects sensationalism. This book announces the arrival of a major writer. (Kirkus Reviews