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Muse's Books

Book 86: Annabel: a Novel by Kathleen Winter

UK cover
Book 86: Annabel: a Novel .
Author: Kathleen Winter, 2010.
Genre: Coming of Age. Gender issues. Period Fiction (1960s-80s)
Other Details: Hardback. 480 pages.

In Kathleen Winter's début novel an intersex baby is born to Jacinta and Treadway Blake. It is 1968 and the couple live in a remote hamlet in Labrador. Treadway is a trapper, a man of strong principles and few words who is more at ease communing with nature than among people. It is he who makes the decision that the baby will have the necessary surgery and be brought up as a boy. Jacinta is sorrowed by this decision feeling that she has lost a daughter. Her close friend Thomasina had served as midwife for the birth and was the first person to realise the baby had both male and female genitalia. She too is disturbed by the choice and at the baptism ceremony she secretly christens the baby Annabel in memory of her own daughter, who had recently died in a boating accident along with her husband.

So young Wayne unwittingly starts life as a boy with, as he later observes a girl curled up inside him. The story follows Wayne through childhood. adolescence and into young adulthood as he begins to question the reasons for the regime of medication he takes daily as well as his conflicting emotions and sense of identity. The three adults, each play their own role in this process.

Canadian cover
This was a sensitive and powerful novel; one that was haunting in terms of imagery, especially in its depiction of Labrador and the stark, almost frontier, lifestyle experienced by its inhabitants. Like Grace Williams Says It Loud and The Memory Keeper's Daughter, its late 20th century period setting allows the author to explore difference in the context of the perceptions of those times. Like its protagonist, it is a quiet, introverted novel; meditative in parts.

While I loved the novel and became quite caught up in Wayne's poignant search for self, I felt at times that the story drifted a little, unsure of direction. In particular the prologue, featuring the white caribou depicted on the original Canadian cover, felt slightly wasted as though there was something the author could have developed and yet chose not to. Perhaps because to do so may have taken her down the path of magical realism or introduced mystical elements. Even though I wanted her to take that path, I was aware that was my desire. In the 2011 Orange Prize reading group I was part of others expressed pleasure that this aspect remained undeveloped.

Yet overall these were very minor reservations for a work that was beautifully written, at times taking on an almost poetic quality. A memorable novel that I expect I shall want to reread in order to explore its themes at a deeper level. While it did not win the Orange Prize or the other three awards it was nominated for, it still is quite an achievement for a first novel to receive wide critical praise and such accolades. It also did win the Independent Literary GLBTQ Award for 2010.
Tags: bildungsroman/coming of age, canada, canadian lit, glbt, modern lit, period fiction (20th century)

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