Annabel by Kathleen Winter
In 1968, in a remote part of Canada, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor girl, but both at once. Only three people share the secret – the baby’s parents and a trusted neighbour. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to go through surgery and raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows up within the hyper-male 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. As Wayne approaches adulthood, and its emotional and physical demands, the woman inside him begins to cry out. The changes that follow are momentous not just for him, but for the three adults that have guarded his secret.
I actually bought this book over a year ago now, after it had been shortlisted for last year’s Orange Prize, and for some reason it has taken me until now to read it! I loved the idea of the novel – of getting a glimpse into the mind of a hermaphrodite, of which I knew very little about.
At first I was completely taken with Winter’s writing; she certainly has a gift for pulling you into a story that makes you feel very unsettled, but at the same time compelled to keep reading. I was so intrigued by this helpless baby born with both female and male reproductive organs, and the decisions forced upon its parents; do they bring it up as a boy or a girl? Or do they leave it, being both male and female, letting it be as it was born to be. I feel slightly cruel using the word ‘it’ to describe a person here, but I’m not entirely sure what other word to use, so I hope it doesn’t offend anyone! The baby is soon named Wayne, a decision made by his father, Treadway, because of his longing for a son; someone to teach how to hunt in the wilderness of Canada, someone he can sculpt into a man; a provider. But Wayne’s mother, Jacinta, feels very early on that Wayne isn’t simply a boy, and she finds it unbearable to have to suppress Wayne’s female side. She wants him to live exactly as he is, and not be forced either way. However, perhaps the biggest influence onWayne’s life is Jacinta’s friend, Thomasina; who recently lost both her husband and daughter in an accident. Her daughter’s name was Annabel, and it is by this name that she chooses to talk toWayne. It is through Thomasina that Wayne’s female side is allowed to grow, and this has some devastating consequences for all involved.
What I wanted to get out of this novel, was to be able to fully immerse myself into the mind and body of a hermaphrodite; I wanted to know exactly how it felt to be so different, to perhaps not belong to one sex or the other, to be forced into decisions that go against their very nature. In some respects, I got this, but just not quite enough. For the first one hundred pages or so, I really, really enjoyed this book. I was intrigued, captivated, horrified, amazed… I couldn’t help but feel for this small-town rural family who are confronted with something they have no idea how to deal with. But as the novel went on, I felt more and more distanced from Wayne. At first, I liked the fact that Winter gave you an insight into the characters around Wayne, rather than just Wayne himself. This is certainly an issue that involves a whole family rather than one individual. But I soon grew tired of the over-descriptive passages of Jacinta and Treadway’s lives, or Thomasina’s as she travels around the world from place to place. I didn’t care for any of it, and I wanted to get back to Wayne. Although some of the later passages are truly terrible to read, and unfortunately, involve events that you could see were inevitable, the book doesn’t quite redeem itself in the way I wanted it to. Put simply: I wanted less description, and more emotion. There are far too many metaphorical, philosophical ramblings for my liking, half of which I felt I was scanning over rather than really absorbing. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe Winter is a fantastic writer, and one I won’t hesitate in reading again, but I just can’t help but feel that this book could have been so much more. Many readers have commented on the disappointing ending, and I’m sad to say I agree with them too; it doesn’t have enough finality, and ends on yet another metaphorical line that doesn’t really leave you with a whole lot. And that’s not to mention that the character of Jacinta, who is such a prominent character in the beginning of the novel, seems to completely drop off the radar.
I can’t really finish this review without also commenting on the relationship/friendship between Wayne and Wally. Wally is Wayne’s only real friend, and the two strike up a friendship that lasts what could be a lifetime. Wally is the only person Wayne can truly be himself around, and she never questions him. As much as I liked the character of Wally, I did feel that Winter spent far too much time focusing on her, when their relationship, although inevitably a special one, doesn’t really lead anywhere. The most interesting relationship of the whole novel has to be between Wayne and his father, and for me, these were the pivotal moments where Winter came into her own as a writer. The fact that Treadway goes from being a very masculine man, to becoming ultimately very accepting of who Wayne is, and of who he will be, is truly special to watch. I only wished it could have been explored more than it was.
The subject of hermaphroditism is a risky one, and I certainly commend Winter for having the courage for using it as the focus for her novel, but I definitely feel as though Winter could have taken many more risks here. It is a beautiful novel, and she is a great writer, but it is overwritten and lacking in emotion for me. For a novel that is almost 500 pages long, I expected to be left feeling much more than I did, and it seems that it could have been written in half the number of pages.
In truth, I debated for a long time giving this a rating of four out of five. I was so excited by Annabel when I first picked it up – a brilliant, fresh new voice in fiction, and an intriguing topic had all the makings of a fine novel, but I realised that sadly for me, its flaws far outweighed everything I loved about it in the beginning. Annabel has received some fantastic reviews online, so please be sure to read through those before writing this novel off after this review. I certainly don’t want to stop people from reading it as I think Winter has highlighted an important condition that we should all take the time to become more aware, and more understanding of. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for what she writes next.
Annabel is out now in paperback, published by Vintage.