Friday, June 27, 2014

Reader's Diary #1140- Kathleen Winter: Annabel

Part of my goal for the Canadian Book Challenge is to try to read at least one book from every province and territory. When I was doing my tally a couple of weeks back I realized that I had skipped Newfoundland and Labrador. The province I was born in. I couldn't possibly let that one pass; the heat was on to fit one in before the challenge draws to a close at the end of June. Thankfully, I couldn't put Annabel down and finishing it in time turned out to be no obstacle at all.

Annabel is a story of a person born with hermaphroditism (the term used in the book, though most reviews I've read favour the term intersexed). The parents agree (the mother reluctantly) to raise the child as Wayne, a boy, with a surface level operation and ongoing drug treatments. They feel that the small Labrador town of Croydon Harbour would never accept Wayne's true identity and so they, and a family friend who was there at the birth, keep it a secret, even from Wayne for most of his childhood.

Such a topic would easily lend itself to a lot of discussion and reflection about gender and society. And no mistake, Annabel accomplishes that in spades. What's feminine and what's masculine? While Wayne has certain emotions and interests and it would be easy to suggest they're a product of his female identity (Annabel) side or of his male (Wayne) side, many of us who aren't intersexed have emotions and interests that are perhaps atypical for our gender but don't think that it's the other gender living inside of us. Winter has shone a huge spotlight on the idea of gender dichotomy, a dichotomy that even Wayne seems to accept. It's extremely provocative that he dwells on the female that has been repressed inside of him, but never seems to entertain the idea that perhaps he's not a duality at all. It's so compelling. Did this idea occur to Winter? Or was it her intent to show that society has set up this binary system and it's unavoidable? I also wondered about what would have happened had Wayne's parents opted to go the female route. Would she have felt the presence of a male aching to get out? What do intersexed readers feel about the book? I'm sure everyone has had different experiences, but did Annabel capture what it was like for any of them?

I said that the topic itself makes for an easy segue into such contemplation, but I don't feel that Winter threw it out with any pretension or pseudo-intellectualism the way I've accused some poets of doing with the idea of God. I feel she had her points to make along the way and at times the writing was beautiful. I loved her treatment of Wayne's father, Treadway. If ever there was a great example to demonstrate the difference between sympathy and empathy, it is surely illustrated through Winter's handling of Wayne's father. It took me a longer time to understand what she was doing with Wayne's character, who seemed emotionally aloof for so much of the book. Finally it occurred to me that he was as much a product of his parenting as any biological condition. That I thought was genius.

But there were parts I wasn't crazy about. First was the lack of follow through in the mom character, Jacinta. There's definitely room for a sequel there. Second was (spoiler alert) the part about Wayne impregnating himself. When the whole point of his character seemed to be, as I said above, to provide introspection on all of our gender identities, this part felt off course. I've since discovered that it's also impossible. So what was the point? I guess it could serve to show that Wayne's character is supposed to be a literary invention, a construct, not meant to be a representative of any real life intersexed community. Whatever the case, I think the book would have been stronger without that part.

Stronger, but still a very strong book and one of the best I've read in a long time.

1 comment:

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Of course I heard much discussion of and praise for this book during the Canada Reads debates earlier this year, but it is actually your review that makes me want to actually pick it up and read it.