In 1968, into the beautiful, spare environment of remote coastal Labrador, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor girl, but both at once. Only three people are privy to the secret—the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows to adulthood within the hyper-masculine 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.
Haunting, sweeping in scope, and stylistically reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Annabel is a compelling debut novel about one person’s struggle to discover the truth in a culture that shuns contradiction. [From Anansi’s site]
I have to start out by saying that Annabel is not a book I would have normally picked up, even at a friend’s recommendation. But I started hearing more and more positive things about this book, and when I signed up for House of Anansi’s review crew, Annabel was one of the books I received in the mail, quite unexpectedly, too.
And it really is a gorgeous book (I was pleased to receive a hardcover copy): about the size of a trade but of perfect thickness and beautifully bound, the text housed between attractive turquoise boards, its pages soft but sturdy and the binding flexible. It was a great pleasure just to look at and hold. In fact, it’s so lovely I took off the dust jacket and read it that way, feeling rather…Martha Stewart somehow, because of the colours and clean design, I guess. In any case, all of that really did enhance my experience (even if I’d disliked the book, I would have kept it to decorate with!), though the writing itself left nothing whatsoever to be desired.
For a debut novel, this book completely surprised me (in short, I thought it excellent), even though Winter isn’t an inexperienced writer by any means: her credentials include writing for TV and newspapers as well as a book of short stories called boYs. But Annabel is simply literary fiction at its best, and I am surprised because this is the novel one comes out with after maybe three or so others before it, the novel one works up to with experience. Everything about Annabel is so perfectly realized that it’s shocking a writer can do it so masterfully her first time around. (I’ve felt this way about other authors, too, like Elizabeth Kostova with The Historian, but I never cease to be amazed, and a bit jealous).
Winter’s skilled writing style suits the book well: it’s simple and clean, but also deliberate and distinct. One gets the sense she is careful when she writes, and this results in not only empathetically portrayed, deeply memorable characters but also a deep sense of awareness and wisdom. Her method of interrupting speech in odd places (e.g., “I thought,” Dr. Lioukras told her on a follow-up visit, while Wayne was in the hematology lab having two vials of blood drawn from his arm, “you knew”), which I especially liked because it opened my copyeditor eyes even further, made the writing all the more effective and noticeable. She also had a clear sense of how to divide the book into chapters (the ending of each chapter made it quite impossible to refrain from continuing) as well as how to effectively tell the intertwining stories (we have five perspectives in this novel). This and the utterly compelling and sensitively presented new (for me) subject matter made me quite reluctant to put down the book, and I did so only out of necessity, and often in the wee hours of the morning.
Because much in this novel depends on what is unsaid, and because I want readers to be able to read without any imposition of interpretation, I am reluctant to give anything of the story away, or to expound as I might in a paper on various themes in the novel. It is indeed a novel worthy of study, and one on which I’d write a paper if I had to. Instead, I supply the synopsis above as all you need to know, plus my assurance that this is very well-written and worth your time. Because it’s so beautiful and effective, I want you to be able to derive from it all you can without my influence.
At the same time, I can’t refrain from telling you what impressed me most (yes, there’s more): very well-realized characters that made me change my opinion of them more than once, and made me feel as though these were real people I wanted to know; how the writing and story and characters caused me to reflect on myself and my surroundings in several ways, especially regarding communication, sexuality, physicality, and judgementalism (this last one most of all); the power of both the Labrador and St. John’s landscapes and how that power seeped into every nook and cranny of the lives it hosted, how much presence the land had, how it prominently featured in the book and yet did not overshadow (okay, I can read Atlantic Canadian writing again!); the themes of connection and loneliness and Other, of communication and expression, and the lack of it or the inability to do it well or at all, as well as the related questions, secrets, silence. There is so much to explore in this book and not once did I feel overwhelmed, except by a deep and surprising wish I had real-life access to the people who populated this amazing story.
However, now I feel overwhelmed, now that it comes time to review the book, and I can see that I’ve been rather “listy” and vague so far. This is hardly a review. But it’s harder to review a book, I find, when one is still processing it, and when it’s so good it seems somehow to negate the need for any convincing. I just want to press this book into your hands and say, Experience this. Because you will; it’s not a book you read quickly and put down to pick up another. I was totally engaged while reading, both emotionally and mentally. I was constantly asking questions (what would I decide and do if I had a hermaphrodite baby? Seeing as how, especially working in a naturopathic clinic, I’m inclined to go the natural, drug-free way, what would I do in this case? How do I deal with being so conscious of the fact that Wayne is being narrated as “Wayne” and “he” and “him” when I know “he” is also “Annabel” and “she” and “her”? How is my interpretation of this story different from what a man might read into it and how are my feelings different from what a man might feel reading this book?); I was always participating in some way, always conscious of the complications and complexities of gender.
Most interestingly, I was extremely aware of and affected by Wayne’s female physical manifestations: his breasts, his uterus, his menstrual issues. They were so powerfully expressed that I felt the way people do on waking when they aren’t sure whether something was a dream or not. I sometimes felt it was me with these sometimes horrifying issues, and then I’d realize they were not mine to deal with.
Another reason you will experience this book rather than simply read it: the characters—especially Treadway, whom I adored, hated, and loved again (what’s weird is I know someone so like him it’s uncanny); Wayne (whom I loved tenderly and kept wishing I knew out of curiosity, a need to dispel his loneliness, and because it’s impossible not to identify with him in some way; and Thomasina, whom I frowned upon and then respected and then loved—and the landscape are too powerful to quickly forget; the subject matter is too sensitive and compelling to not wonder about and explore it. And there is great beauty in this novel.
Annabel has everything, without losing focus or being overwhelming: life, death, love, hate, despair, hope, loss, renewal, lies, truth, and perhaps most of all and importantly, ambiguity. Life is not black or white, after all. In each of us resides all of these things together, and more besides. All of us are complex, male and female together, though not so many of us are physically both of these things. The struggles of how to find one’s place or deal with loneliness, confusion, and what’s right are not foreign, but what makes Wayne’s struggle so interesting is that it—and indeed he—seems to literally embody our innermost workings. This is especially what I came away with: what an effect we have on such people who defy convention when we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable with contradiction and fail to recognize or acknowledge what we might fear in ourselves.