Today, Kathleen Winter earned a literary trifecta, securing spots on all three major Canadian fiction prize shortlists. Winter was announced as a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Literature this morning. Winter’s novel Annabel is also up for The Giller Prize and The Writer’s Trust Award. Winter’s book, her debut novel, is the only one contending for all three awards this year; and it is a stunningly beautiful book.
In 1968, into the beautiful, spare environment of remote coastal Labrador, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor girl, but both at once. Only three people are privy to the secret — the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows to adulthood within the hyper-masculine hunting culture of his father, his shadow-self — a girl he thinks of as Annabel — is never entirely extinguished, and indeed is secretly nurtured by the women in his life.
Haunting, sweeping in scope, and stylistically reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Annabel is a compelling debut novel about one person’s struggle to discover the truth in a culture that shuns contradiction.”
Annabel offers some hard themes for readers. It is the story of an intersex child born in a remote coastal Labrador village in 1968. Primarily, I feel, Winter has written an homage to self-determination and self-preservation. An intersex child is born with atypical reproductive anatomy – both male and female anatomy are present. Advocates for intersex infants argue against surgical alterations of gentalia and reproductive organs being performed in order to accommodate societal expectations of what it means to be male or female in the world. This choice forms the centre of Winter’s novel.
Jacinta Blake gives birth, in her bathtub, at home. Her closest friend, Thomasina, is assisting with the birth. Thomasina is the first one who notices the baby has both male and female genitals. She immediately begins to refer to the child as Annabel, in tribute to her own daughter who has recently died. Jacinta’s husband, Treadway, feels strongly the child should be raised male while Jacinta (and Thomasina) feel love for the daughter, Annabel. The infant, “Wayne”, receives surgery to make his body appear more fully male. He is also started on a regiment of hormones to keep his body more male than female. All of this is kept from Wayne while he is growing up but he is always aware of not feeling whole as he is. Thomasina, however, addresses the child as Annabel, when they are together privately.
In an interview for House of Anansi Press, Kathleen Winter was asked, “What do you hope readers will take away from their experience with Wayne and his shadow-self, Annabel?”
“I’d like readers to see Wayne/Annabel the way they see themselves, and look at the “other” gender within themselves. I feel point of view is everything, in life and in literature, and I hope the book treats the points of view held by its divergent characters with equal respect. In many ways, this book is, for me, about suspending judgment. When you understand why someone acts the way they do, even if the actions cause sadness or difficulty, then I think you can redirect your energy to something more fruitful than judgment. I also hope the reader will have the kind of reading experience I think books are really about: a connection with the characters and a suspension of the loneliness of being human. I hope this story, like all good stories, might give the reader a kind of relief and a joy.”
Winter set a large task for herself with Annabel. I feel she achieved perhaps more than she could have hoped for. Winter has created a wonderfully memorable story and Annabel (the character) is such a beautiful portrait of what it means to be human. Through Winter’s ability the reader feels the sadness, the loneliness but also the strength and the hope.