October 20, 2010

Annabel - Kathleen Winters

I don't know why, but I had been avoiding this book. Something in the premise didn't appeal to me. But now I have read it, and I'm glad that I did.

It is the story of Wayne/Annabel, a hermaphrodite born in 1968 in rural Labrador. His father decides that his son is to be brought up as a boy and so surgery is done to turn him into a boy, and hormone pills are introduced at the age when he should reach puberty. As might be expected, Wayne's female side begins to shine through, both in physical and intellectual ways. I won't reveal the ending here, but it involves Wayne/Annabel coming to terms with both halves of himself; the male and female within.

There are lots of interesting issues and questions brought up in this story. The question of sex vs. gender. In terms of sex, Wayne/Annabel is both male and female. But in terms of gender, he is brought up as a male, but later in life she begins to identify more as a female. In the end, he comes to terms with and relates to both genders.

I also can't help but wonder what would have happened if Wayne's father had made the opposite decision - to raise Annabel as a daughter. Would the same issues and conflicts have arisen? I suspect that they would have been less traumatic on Annabel than they were on Wayne. Given the culture of the time and place, Wayne as a boy was expected to be almost hyper-masculine - out trapping and hunting with his father, while showing off for the girls. Whereas a tomboy-ish girl probably would have stood out less (though Wayne's best friend, a girl, was bullied and ostracized for being different than the other girls).

It also brings up the effect that having a child who is considered different has on the parents, though not in great depth. Wayne's father tends to isolate himself from his family, spending more and more time in the bush letting his mother raise Wayne. While Wayne's mother ends up sinking into a deep depression later on in her life. In the end, there is a role reversal, and Wayne's father ends up closer to him than his mother.

I found the first couple of chapters (especially the prologue) tough slogging, but once I got into the book, it was a fast and engaging read.

My only other criticism was that I found a few of the secondary characters to be more interesting than the more central characters. I would have liked to know more about Thomasina, a family friend and the only person in the community outside of the family who knows the secret. She was a much more richly drawn character than Jacinta, Wayne's mother, but she disappears for the entire middle section of the book. And my favourite character was Wally, Wayne's best friend for a year or so. She has the potential to have a whole book written about her, but instead, after a roaring introduction, she fades away until she is re-introduced towards the end of the book, almost as a plot device.

This counts as another selection towards the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set. And it puts my Giller read-athon on hold, as the other 2 shortlisted books, while ordered, have yet to arrive in my mailbox. I've started instead into a classic that I somehow managed to miss along the way.

And so my personal Giller standings, in order of preference, are:
1. The Matter with Morris
2. Annabel
3. This Cake is for the Party
4. ?
5. ?

On a not-quite-unrelated note, I was browsing the Governor General Literary Awards shortlist earlier this week. Annabel is the only book to appear on both the Giller and the GG shortlist; however the GG shortlist includes one of the Giller long-listed books (Cool Water by Dianne Warren) and the two books that I was hoping to see on the Giller shortlist (Motorcycles and Sweetgrass and Room). The Boy in the Moon is also on the GG non-fiction shortlist.

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