book reviews

Annabel by Kathleen Winter: A Review

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]

Annabel by Kathleen Winter. Anansi, 2010, pp. 461.

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.

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  1. JK

    You always render your reading experience so vividly that I feel like I’ve read it along with you! And I think your final line is bang on.

    I never fully hated Treadway, though the bridge incident was tough to read. I think Winter renders him so carefully that you can always sympathize with his fear, with his misguided attempts to guide his son in the right direction. I was also interested to read you frowned on Thomasina, whereas I was enamored with her from the beginning. Her choices were perhaps not always the best, but she seemed such a strong, independent and open-minded woman in a very rigid society that I couldn’t help but be fascinated by her.

    Anyway, marvelous review as always. I do wish that we could sit and discuss this one over tea!

  2. Steph Author


    Thank you! Your compliment makes me happy.

    Okay, hate is a strong word, but oh, I really despised Treadway sometimes, especially when he was taking down that bridge. But I think we bring to books, and our reactions to characters, our own experience, which is to say that I had a very strict father who often took drastic action, and whom I sometimes saw in Treadway and which likely fueled the fire for my intense emotions. My father was also very loving and protective, of course, just like Treadway, and I think this affected my reading at the end as well.

    Yes, at the beginning there was something I can’t find a word for about Thomasina, for me. I understand very much what you liked about her, since I liked the same things, but these were not as expressed at the beginning. I had no issue with her taking Wayne to the hospital, and though I didn’t like that Treadway and Jacinta kept such secrets from Wayne, at first I felt Thomasina was making it harder for him rather than easier, by calling him Annabel in particular, and there was something else that got my goat but I forget now what it was. There was something a little crazy, a little rebellious but in a negative way, about all that, for me.

    I think I myself felt often torn throughout and that’s why I still find myself thinking about the book and finding it hard to discuss clearly.

    But yes! Tea and a book chat would be absolutely wonderful.

  3. It’s good to read someone else’s thoughts on this book since I’m a bit muddled as to my own opinions. I did like how the book handled life’s “gray areas” but sometimes I found the thing to be so indistinct I felt it hard to connect to the characters. The place – yes, it was rendered very well for all its realities and mysticism – but the characters, I thought not. And I wasn’t in love with Treadway’s involvement at the end – he wants to track his son’s abuser down and then is dissuaded by an owl? I didn’t get that part.
    But as you say, to read the book is to experience it fully and I’m still glad to have had that experience. Winter is a fine writer.

  4. Steph Author

    Bronwyn: your thoughts are interesting, because I didn’t feel the same about the characters. At least about their concreteness or clarity. But when it comes to connecting with characters, it’s so much like real life, of course: it depends on who we are and our life experiences. It’s a very individual thing. I found I had less a hold on the land than the people.

    However, I too was a bit surprised by Treadway at the end. I justified his seemingly sudden warmth and concern with the fact that not many fathers could ignore such a traumatic event happening to their child, and that would overcome any awkwardness. Treadway was a tracker by nature, as well, so tracking the perp made sense, though I wasn’t sure to what extent exactly he would go. I don’t think he really was sure, either, though he had more or less planned it out. For all his “hunterliness”, Treadway was still rather gentle toward humans and this perhaps changed his mind more than the owl, but I can’t be certain: I have to look that up. I actually don’t remember exactly what happened there.

  5. Amy

    Wow, I skipped your review because I hadn’t read the novel, and only just came back to it. Beautiful. Your review really does the novel justice, and you say so much more than I could. You are right, this is a book to savor, a book to experience. I loved it SO FREAKIN MUCH!

    I might add also, if you don’t mind… you may consider nominating this for the Indie Lit Awards (blogger awards) GLBTQ category:

    1. Steph Author

      Amy: And I loved your review! Thank you. I have been touting that book like crazy, but it’s been difficult to sell hardcovers here… (grrr!)

      Off to vote at your link! Thanks for reminding me. :)

      1. Amy

        Yes, my local indie bookstore won’t even stock it. argh. I really don’t understand that, especially as it is up for the 3 huge awards!! And yeah, thank you so much for submitting it! I am doing my best to get it lots of nominations. hehe

        1. Steph Author

          WHAT?? They refuse to stock it? Why? Because of the content? What gives there? That’s crazy! We’ll stock almost everything (not how to build a meth lab and things like that), but we only have one copy of many. It’s budget, demand (this town likes the library best, and Chapters) and also we don’t really sell hardcover well at all, unfortunately. I’ve been trying to push all these books I expect to be bestsellers, but what sells at Chapters and what sells at Greenley’s are so different. I suppose that’s normal for an indie, but I find it hard when no one is excited about the books I’m all about.


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