Thursday, 24 March 2011

28/111 – Annabel by Kathleen Winter

I’ve exercised my right to a veto for March. I didn’t fancy Atomised, so I’ve decided to go for Annabel instead, as it’s a delicious weighty hardback and has also been longlisted for the Orange prize - this year, many of them are said to deal with difficult topics. I have a few more of the longlisted titles, and I'm looking forward to reading those, too.

Set during the 1960s and 70s in a village called Labrador, Canada, Treadway and Jacinta are a tranquil married couple. Not happy or unhappy, necessarily, but tranquil. With the birth of their first child comes uncertainty – the baby is born with both male and female sex organs.

It's decided that the baby should be raised as a boy, and so he is swiftly named Wayne and told nothing of his rare condition. We follow Wayne from his birth through to his early twenties, and discover that it is not just he who experiences turmoil and confusion, but his parents and friends, too. Of course, Wayne’s hermaphroditism and his ensuing confusion surrounding his gender identity is a core issue, and one which is handled deftly and with tenderness.

Labrador is a rural town where men are manly and women are womanly, and for much of the book, there doesn’t seem to be a place for Wayne to fit within these narrow confines. His father is a stoic man who yearns for a son, but who deep down also cares for Wayne’s happiness. His mother seems to ache for Wayne to grow into the body he was born with (whatever that may be), and it haunts her that he cannot. There are some heart-wrenching exchanges between mother and son/daughter, such as when the young Wayne wants a costume he sees on the members of a (female) synchronised swimming team. At the same time, Wayne struggles to live up to the example set by his.

Wayne is a sweet and confused person and I was rooting for him the whole way through. Other great characters include Wally; a childhood friend of Wayne’s who is also an enigmatic and moving character. I guess it’s also no coincidence that two of the novel’s strongest female characters have male names – just more evidence of the blurred lines between ‘man’ and ‘woman’. My favourite was probably the mysterious travelling Thomasina. She is Jacinta’s friend, the only other witness to Wayne’s birth and eventually, Wayne’s fiercest supporter. The novel itself takes its name from Thomasina’s deceased daughter, named Annabel.

I’m not an expert on hermaphrodites or trans-gendered people, but from what I can see, Winter handles the topic with respect and shows the confusion which can lead to terrible decisions made by parents and medical professionals, and the cruelty of people who attack what they do not understand. The book is written beautifully, and I particularly loved the way I was immersed in the landscape of Labrador. The challenges which face Wayne from his birth are clear from the outset, and the way he works through things is sometimes sad, but ultimately triumphant.

Next: The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott

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