It’s a boy! It’s a girl! It’s…

Annabel


Kathleen Winter
House of Anansi
461 pages, $32.95

Globe and Mail, June 26, 2010

It’s fair to say that the riddle of gender has engaged Kathleen Winter for some time now. Her award-winning 2007 collection of short stories, boYs, limned the daily disconnections between the sexes, major and minor, that keep us from fully comprehending one another. So her choice of subject matter for her first novel seems a natural progression: Wayne, also known as Annabel, is a hermaphrodite.

For the first few days of his life, Wayne’s parents do not discuss the fact of his ambiguous gender, and this is only the first in a series of secrets and silences that form a thematic thread in this subtle novel. When the subject finally comes up, his father’s response is logical, rational, built on an instinct to protect his child: in deference to the more obvious of his child’s sex organs, Treadway orders the necessary surgery and names him Wayne. His mother Jacinta and her friend Thomasina silently demur, each nurturing his feminine identity in her own secretive way. Jacinta writes “daughter” in the mustard on his sandwich, and Thomasina calls him Annabel, after her own dead daughter, when she’s alone with him.

Scenes from Wayne’s childhood are seeded with the discontent inherent in this situation; although the child has not been explicitly told about his rare condition, his latent gender won’t be wholly contained, neither by the machinations of the medical world nor by the constraints of his community. At school, he avoids the packs of boys his age. He loves to watch synchronized swimming and longs for a bathing suit like the swimmers wear. His hair is soft and fine, he prefers drawing to hunting, and his best friend is a girl. Treadway attempts to counter these departures with increasingly ardent attempts to masculinize his son, culminating in a backhoe ballet that he has commissioned. The scene is at once absurd and heartbreaking.

Born in 1968, Wayne grows up in the world of shiny consumerism that rears its ugly head even in rural Labrador. If God is in the details, Annabel is holy with early-seventies pop culture references, and yet the characters are unmistakably infused with the remote landscape. Of them all, Treadway’s connection to the land is deepest and most visceral, at times animistic. It’s through his hunting sojourns that we come to know the texture of Labrador. This otherwise plainspoken novel, a stylistically canny choice that reflects the cultural emptiness of the time, becomes lyrical and linguistically denser when Treadway is out on the trapline, as if the land holds magic that can’t be contained by ordinary language. Winter gives us Treadway’s self-sufficient ways in loving detail, a paean to a way of life that becomes increasingly obsolete as the novel progresses.

Each member of Wayne’s inner circle is multifaceted and flawed, enacting unwitting betrayals even as they try to understand and support him. In this, Winter shows a willingness to dwell in uncertainty: never does the novel succumb to easy answers. “Everyone is a snake shedding its skin,” Thomasina tells Wayne. “We are different people through all our lives.; Wayne’s peculiarity is his alone, and yet he’s surrounded by others who don’t fit the mold. Some withdraw physically, others emotionally, when the world doesn’t reflect their reality. By the end of the novel, we understand that Thomasina’s assurance to Jacinta shortly after Wayne’s birth (“That baby is all right the way it is. There’s enough room in this world.”) is a wish, not an observation.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this subject matter might have become maudlin or clichéd, begging the question of what it means to be male or female the way it does. But even through the myriad complications Wayne finds in negotiating his world as a hermaphrodite, Winter finds the line between the universal and the personal and walks it with skill and empathy. Annabel is less about chromosomal anomaly or traditional definitions of what it means to be male or female than it is about human potential. 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, Winter asks, what are we? In Wayne’s fumbling and solitary attempts to unravel the mystery of his own uniqueness, we find ourselves.

Christine Fischer Guy is a Toronto writer who is also attracted to remote landscapes. Her first novel is set in Moose Factory, Ontario.