Annabel by Kathleen Winter is a debut novel, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2011.
The story starts with Wayne Blake being born in 1968 during a home birth in Labrador, in a remote part of Canada. One of the women attending the birth was a neighbour of the Blake family, Thomasina Montague, whose husband and daughter, Annabel, were recently drowned in a tragic accident. When Wayne was born, Thomasina noticed a physical anomaly and quickly wrapped the baby up before handing the baby to his mother.
Wayne was born a hermaphrodite (now called intersex), meaning he had both male and female reproductive organs. Wayne’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, made the decision to bring Wayne up as a boy and had him operated on to remove the physical ambiguity. When Wayne was baptised, Thomasina, who was Wayne’s godmother, also quietly christened him ‘Annabel’ after her daughter.
Treadway struggled to cope with the emotional confusion of Wayne’s condition and insisted on bringing Wayne up in a very masculine way, teaching him things that he believed boys need to know at an early age. Jacinta however, mourned for the lost daughter who she could see inside Wayne. Wayne’s condition was known only to Thomasina amongst their community.
Wayne became ill as a teenager, and was medicated, although he didn’t know what for or why. The character of Wayne is delightful, he is kind and generous, and seemed to me to exhibit the best qualities of boys and girls. His dearest friend was a girl and he continued to love her his whole life.
In the beginning of the book, I was looking for clues for dominant characteristics of Wayne being more of one sex or the other, but by about half way through I had stopped and was seeing Wayne simply as a person.
As a small child, Thomasina had secretly called Wayne ‘Annabel’, and as he grew up, he felt as if he had a secret female self who he thought of as Annabel, although he was still unaware that he had been born both male and female.
I loved the first part of this book which showed Wayne as a small child, but felt as if the story went flat in the second half as Wayne grew up and he and the other characters seemed to drift aimlessly. There were no questions from Wayne when he eventually learned the truth about his sex, just a graceful acceptance. In my opinion, if Wayne truly had elements of both a teenage boy and a girl in him when he learned such momentous news, there would have been far more drama.
Treadway was an interesting character, silent and self-reliant. He spent as much time as he could out on his trapline, hunting animals for their fur. Jacinta and Wayne, like the other women and children in their community, spent months alone while the men were away working.
The landscape and the depiction of the traditional values and ways of life are an important element in Annabel and for me were the highlight. The language is beautiful and carefully chosen. Had the characters been less subtle and more passionate, I think I would have enjoyed this story better.