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Book review: "Annabel"

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Kathleen Winter's first novel, Annabel, was a finalist for Canada's prestigious Giller Prize. Set in Labrador, the book imagines an intersex child growing up in a remote northern village. Our book critic, Betsy Kepes, has this review.

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Betsy Kepes
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In Kathleen Winter's novel Annabel, Labrador is a beautiful yet brutal place. Treadway Blake loves the wildness of the land and spends most of the year outside trapping animals and shooting birds. When his wife, Jacinta, births their first child, a baby that is both a boy and a girl, Treadway names the child Wayne and insists on hiding the child's dual identity. Yet, Thomasina, the baby's midwife, has another name she secretly speaks to the child—Annabel.

The novel begins in 1968 and moves forward through Wayne's childhood in the small fictional community of Croyden Harbour. The baby Wayne undergoes surgery and the child Wayne takes hormones to keep him male, though he has no idea why he is taking the pills. Even with the medication, Wayne isn't boy enough for his father Treadway. When Wayne doesn't want to take part in a school party, Treadway insists he go. He says, "Boys, in Labrador, Wayne, are like a wolf pack... That's how you survive."

In elegant poetic sentences Winter gives details of life in southeast Labrador, a place where the growing season is too short for most flowers and vegetables, and men leave home for months at a time to attend their trap lines. As Wayne grows up, the secret his parents' hold silently destroys their marriage. Winter writes: "A family can go on for years without the love that once bound it together, like a lovely old wall that stays standing long after rain has crumbled the mortar." Jacinta wants to tell her child the truth, but is afraid to do so. Winter writes: "If you held back truth you couldn't win. You swallowed truth and it went sour in your belly and poisoned you slowly."

After an emergency medical intervention, a doctor at the Goose Bay hospital tells teenage Wayne of his dual sexuality. Wayne thinks, "How could he be a girl inside? What did that mean? He pictured girls from his class lying inside his body, hiding." His parents tell him he can't tell anyone about his double nature, not even his best friend, a girl named Wally.

After high school Wayne moves to St. Johns, Newfoundland where he experiments with not taking his medications. Winter writes, "He had expected to have more time than he had to get used to the changes in his body. But his body jumped at the chance to become less like a man and more like a woman." Wayne is afraid to go to work and has no friends except Steve, a curious high school student. When Wayne tells Steve why his body is changing, Steve can't keep that information to himself and Wayne is brutally attacked because of his uncertain gender.

Winter pushes her readers to question what it means to be male or female and everything in between. Annabel is filled with a rich sense of place and complex characters who struggle to know who they are in a world that seems to have no place for ambiguity and difference.

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