Friday, December 28, 2012

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter. Black Cat, 2012

When a baby is born, the first question anyone asks is “Boy or girl?” It is accepted that gender is the most important thing about the child, before questions like “Healthy?””All limbs and digits present?” or “Brain inside skull properly?” No, the shape of the genitals is the most important thing to society.

In 1968, in a barely populated area of Labrador, a baby is born to Jacinta and Treadway Blake. Born in the bathtub with three neighbor women in attendance, only one person, Thomasina, notices that the child is not quite the same as most babies. This child has both penis and vagina. With the exception of the parents and Thomasina, no one in the area knows the child’s secret. Treadway names the baby Wayne, declares it will be raised as a boy, and not long after, the vagina is sewn shut. Treadway, a man who spends the better part of the year running trap lines in the wild forests of Labrador and lives a basic, homesteading life, goes out of his way to teach Wayne to be a man of the same sort: tying knots, trapping, reading sign, skinning and preserving pelts, snowmobiling. He fears any sign of femininity in Wayne; the facts that the child’s best- only- same age friend is a girl and that s/he prefers reading and drawing to rebuilding engines provokes Treadway to doing something that severs the friendship between Wayne and the friend. What Treadway doesn’t know is that for several years, Thomasina, as Wayne’s school teacher, nurtured the interests that weren’t “male” and provided a safe person for Wayne to talk to- and at one point, saves Wayne’s life.

Treadway is a decent man. He is not mean or nasty or even a misogynist. He simply knows that life will be easier for Wayne if there is no question as to gender. And life is easier for men than for women. Still, I had a very hard time empathizing with Treadway. Despite his love for Wayne, he cannot see gender as anything other than a strict binary. Jacinta is a dim character, not fully realized. Thomasina is the liveliest of the adults. Almost too good to be true, she is open to most everything in a way that the other residents aren’t.  

The location itself is a character; it is brought up frequently and shapes the people and their lives. It’s almost like another book is inserted into Annabel’s tale; there is the story of Wayne/Annabel, and there is the story of the land, and, to a degree, Treadway’s relationship with it. Sometimes the stories intersect; most often they do not. The story of the land is achingly beautiful, but I found myself wondering at times why it was in that book.

This is Wayne/Annabel’s coming of age story, but it’s also a late coming of age for Treadwell, Jacinta, and Thomasina. Wayne/Annabel is not a girl in a boy’s body, as some seem to think, but both male/female in both body and soul, and this is still a hard situation to live in today; think how hard it would have been in the 1970s, especially in a rural area.

The writing itself is beautiful, especially in the descriptive passages. But the characters could have used more work, and the book could have lost some of its size and gained focus. When considered as a first novel, though,, it’s a stupendous achievement, and I can’t wait to see what Winter does next. 


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