Review: Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

>>Published: May 2010

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

The Writer’s Trust Fiction Award, the Giller, and the Governor General’s Literary Award—few are the Can Lit titles that manage to snag nominations for one of those, maybe two of them. But nailing the trifecta? This year that honour is Kathleen Winter’s alone with her first novel, Annabel. Has it won anything yet? Sadly no. It was shut out of the Writer’s Trust and Giller awards by Emma Donoghue’s Room (see previous review here) and Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists respectfully. Will it win the Governor General’s award? We’ll find out tomorrow night. Does it deserve it?

Oh yes.

Full disclosure: I went into Annabel with a bit of a chip on my shoulder—hype. Namely, that I’d been hearing about the book for months, its support base was growing incredibly fast, and once the three nominations came through, the praise seemed deafening. I’d already felt that my anticipation for Room might have somewhat dampened that book’s impact (though I’d like to read it again to be sure… I still feel that the voice just wasn’t “there” for me), and I’ve been avoiding Freedom for the same reason—almost wishing I could forget about the hype before deciding to sink into the text. So yeah, I was a little dodgy with Annabel. I knew I wanted to read it, I just didn’t know if it would be best to wait a little while longer, just long enough for the awards season to pass and for the urgency to die down a little bit.

Glad I didn’t pay too much attention to my own advice.

Winter’s novel tells the tale of Wayne, a true intersex child born in Labrador in 1968, and Annabel, the female side of him that is given name and is always there, always present in some form or another within every facet of Wayne’s existence. The two coexist in this tale, even in times when one isn’t aware of the other’s presence.

It would have been tremendously easy for Winter to fall back on predictability, using the subject of an intersex child as a literary vehicle for metaphor, but she doesn’t have so little love for the character or story as to take such an easy route. Instead we have been given a rich, detailed set of characters, who never play to the expected stereotypes with which it would have been so easy to label them upon first glance, and a focussed plot that moves swiftly through nearly three decades of Wayne’s life, as he comes to learn of Annabel’s existence, and how the presence of a buried self helps to define the person he was always destined to become.

It’s a beautifully detailed work of art that shows equal love to its maritime locations as it does to Wayne, Wally, Thomasina, Jacinta, and most surprisingly, Wayne’s father, Treadway. I struggled to connect to Treadway for a great portion of the text, finding his actions deplorable, even if his motivations were without malicious intent. By the end, however, he surprised me. He grew in such a way as to tether the emotional journey of Wayne in the final chapters, enhancing our perception of the changes that they had all gone through in the course of the story. Whereas Wayne’s journey was one of self-discovery, Treadway’s was of acceptance. We were not cheated at the end—there was no character within the main cast that had not blossomed into something entirely different by the book’s final chapter, and at no time did the steps of their individual development feel in any way forced. That is certainly an impressive feat for any writer. That this is Winter’s first novel makes it all the more breathtaking of an achievement.

Whether she wins the Governor General’s award tomorrow night or not will do nothing to extinguish the beauty of Annabel. It is a remarkable book, one that anyone with a serious interest in Can Lit owes it to themselves to read.

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