Wednesday 17 July 2013

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Review: Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Annabel by Kathleen WinterAnnabel 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.
From Amazon UK

I really wasn't sure if I was going to like this book. It's not really a YA novel, as it covers Wayne's life from when he was a baby until he reaches about 20; it sounded quite literary, which isn't really my thing; and I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy where it was set, in a little hunting town in Canada where life is very different from the city life. However, I loved it!

In a hunting town in Canada in 1968, a child is born with both male and female genitals. The baby's intersexuality is known only by three people; his parents, Treadway and Jacinta, and Thomasina, a friend and neighbour who was helping at the birth. Treadway decides that the baby is to be a boy named Wayne, and Wayne undergoes a surgical procedure to make him look more male. Treadway is determined that Wayne should be as male as possible, yet Jacinta longs for the daughter that could have been, and Thomasina calls him by the name of her dead daughter, Annabel, when they're alone. Despite this Wayne is brought up unaware of his intersexuality. Until puberty.

At first, I found the book quite slow. It has a very descriptive style, and it took a good while to get used to as characters were set up with fairly long sections covering the way the characters, specifically Treadway, Jacinta and Thomasina, thought. The book is written in third person, but we get to see inside all the important characters' heads, and at the beginning, I just kept thinking, “Yes, but what about the baby?!” When Wayne is finally old enough to have his own third person narration, the book finally hooked me in. As I said, this isn't really YA, but for a good chunk of the book, Wayne is in his teens. Seeing the kind of person Wayne grows up to be from a young child to his early teens and older, and seeing him through the eyes of the adults around him is just wondeful! Giving us insight into the thoughts of all the main characters was just genius of Winter, as seeing the affect Wayne's parents and Thomasina has on him, and vice versa is partly what makes this book so amazing. It's not just about the intersexuality of one person, but about relationships.

Croydon Harbour in Labrador, where the book is set, is very set in it's ways. The men go off for a good few months hunting, bringing in food, while the women stay home keeping house and bringing up the family. It's a town where people are pretty self-sufficient, a town that has a set way of doing things, and stepping off the path is unheard of. So an intersex child in this town? It's a thing both Treadway and Jacinta worry about. If the truth is known, how will Wayne be treated? This has to be kept secret, because Wayne's "difference" would not be accepted.

"Normality" and what it means is something that kept coming to mind while I was reading this book. Treadway decides Wayne will be male, because that's what's normal. He takes him out into the woods and shows him the skills of a hunter in an effort to teach him the right ways of being a man, what's normal for a man. Yet his mother has always felt that Wayne shouldn't have had surgery, should have just stayed as he was at birth, that he should have his feminine side nurtured too, because that was this child's "normal". The surgery changed him and made him different, not "normal".
'He wished at that moment that his whole life had not been a secret, that lots of people were like him, instead of being alone in a world where everyone was secure in their place as either woman or man. His aloneness was what made him feel ashamed, and he did not know why it had to be so.' (p414)
Annabel really makes you think about the decisions that are made about a person as a child, and how those decisions affect the person they become. If Treadway accepted his child as he was, didn't try to force him to be more male, argue against anything he thought to be not-male, Wayne could have been a different person. Treadway constantly viewed his son as different, and this had a major effect on Wayne. When he's young, Wayne really struggles with trying to be good enough for his dad, yet knows nothing is ever enough, and once his intersexuality is made known to him, he really struggles with who he is and how he looks.
'What was beauty? Not frailness, not smallness... Years of hormones had made him angular, and it occurred to him that he wished he could stop taking them. He wanted to stop swallowing them every day and having them alter his body from what it wanted to be into what the world desired from it... He wanted to throw the pills away and wait and see what would happen to his body. How much of his body image was accurate and how much was a construct he had come to believe? He tried to see his body objectively....It was a man's body, and a man's body was frozen. Wayne was frozen, and the girl-self trapped inside him was cold. He did not know what he could do to melt the frozen man.' (p343)
The only person who really celebrated Wayne for who he was was Thomasina:
'"I wouldn't call what you have a disorder. I'd call it a different order. A different order means a whole new way of being. It could be fantastic. It could be overwhelmingly beautiful, if people weren't scared.'" (p208-209)
 If only Jacinta had found her voice, and said what she thought. If only Treadway accepted and loved Wayne just the way he was, instead of wanting him to be someone else. If only they both accepted Wayne and voiced it like Thomasina.

Annabel is a beautiful and poweful story, and simply amazing! Thought-provoking and unbelievably moving, Annabel is a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page, one that you'll want to read again and again.

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Published: 1st March 2012
Publisher: Vintage
Buy on Amazon US
Kathleen Winter's Website


  1. This wouldn't usually be a book I'd consider reading either, but the way you've described it makes it seem really thought-provoking and well-written. It's definitely something I'll be checking out soon - thanks!

    1. No worries! I hope you enjoy it, it's such a fantastic book! :)