Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Review: Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Publication Date: 2011

Publisher: Black Cat, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Format: Paperback

Genre:  Literary Fiction

Why I Chose It: Recommended by numerous bloggers, including Adam at Roofbeam Reader

Jacinta and Treadway Blake are making a life together in the harsh, starkly beautiful environment of a small Labrador town. Like most other local men, Treadway spends his winters away from home, hunting and trapping. Jacinta lives a simple life at home. In 1968, their baby is born -- a child that is neither fully male nor fully female. Treadway makes the decision to raise him as a boy, Wayne. Yet Wayne grows up not fitting in, feeling like a disappointment to his father, and sensing that a part of him is missing.

This is a lovely novel with a lyrical style and rich descriptive detail. The author has a phenomenal eye for the cycles of nature and the rhythms of life in a small Canadian community .

The milieu Winter describes does not offer an easy life for a child without a clear gender identity. Male and female roles are sharply divided, and we see a wide breach between boys and girls and between husbands and wives. She portrays this compassionately and without judgment.

In his determination to help his son grow up "normal" and socially accepted, Treadway tries to keep Wayne within the narrow boundaries of what is considered "male." Yet the child pays a price for denying his female side.

This opens a window to exploring issues of gender identity on a larger scale. We see clearly how children are shaped from birth to fit external standards of what is "male" or "female," sometimes at the expense of who we truly are. Eastern philosophy and Jungian psychology offer an intuitive understanding of the cost of denying the shadow side each of us has, such as "feminine" traits in a male or "masculine" traits in a female. But for the most part, Western culture makes no room for this.

In Annabel, we walk in the footsteps of someone who is uncomfortable being constrained by either gender identity. This pulls aside a curtain, making us question everything we "know" about gender. Set aside biology for a moment. Under the external trappings of clothing and gender roles, what does it really mean to be "male" or "female"? Can this be a way of defining people by external standards? Can it diminish who we are?

This novel also raised difficult questions about parenting. Most of us want -- more than anything -- for our children to be truly themselves. Yet we want them to be "normal" and accepted. We don't want them to suffer in a society which often doesn't celebrate people for who they really are.

Watching Treadway's struggle to repress Wayne's feminine side was difficult for me. At the same time, even as this caused a widening rift between him and his wife, I understood his motives and empathized with him. Few things are more painful than seeing one's child become an outcast. Treadway was fully aware of this possibility and of the very real danger of physical harm. Individuals who are transgendered in some way are among the most common victims of unprovoked violence.

I loved this book for its beautiful prose, attention to detail, thought-provoking exploration of gender and family issues, and rich character development. I admired this author's thoughtful, compassionate treatment of her characters. And I was absorbed by her deep appreciation of nature and of how people express their spirituality by being part of the natural world.

Memorable Quotes: 

On spirituality through nature (This is at a funeral -- WARNING: Slight spoiler, although we learn of these deaths in the introduction.)
The inside of the church was something she could not stand that day ... she did not want to contain her thoughts about Graham and Annabel inside the walls, which shut out the light this spring day, and which smelled of old wooden pews and the fragrant paper of ancient prayer books and the soap and perfume of people who had washed themselves clean enough to come to a religious ritual. She could not bear to have the lives of her husband and daughter reduced to this ritual when out here the sun and air were boundless, and insects had begun to inhabit the place again after the long winter, and there was, even though Graham and Annabel had drowned, glad birdsong.

 On seeing the world through Wayne's eyes:
The street smelled of cigarettes, perfume, and coffee, and Wayne saw that the faces, bodies, clothes, and shoes of the men and women who passed him had been divided and thinned. The male and female in them had been both diluted and exaggerated. They were one, extremely so, or they were the other. The women trailed tapered gloves behind them and walked in ludicrous heels, while the men, with their fuzzy sideburns and brown briefcases, looked boring as little beagles out for the same rabbit. You define a tree and you do not see what it is; it becomes its name. It is the same with woman and man. Everywhere Wayne looked there was one or the other, male or female, abandoned by the other. The loneliness of this cracked the street in half. Could the two halves of the street bear to see Wayne walk the fissure and not name him a beast?
On identity: “Everyone is a snake shedding its skin… We are different people through all our lives.” 

Other Reviews: Monniblog; Book Chatter; Jules' Book Reviews; Savidge Reads; Book Monkey; Reading Through Life; Farm Lane Books Blog; Eclectic/Eccentric; The Mookse and the Gripes; Did I miss yours?

Rating: (4.5/5 Stars)


  1. This sounds really interesting. I'm seriously going to look for this. Great review!

  2. 5 stars! Great. I got this book from the library this week and I'm looking forward to reading it. Even more so after your review.

    I immediately start wondering whether the child would have been better off being raised as a girl. Being a "softie" as a boy is not acceptable in such an environment, but being a strong girl who doesn't play with dolls, might have been fine.

    1. Judith, I am curious to hear what you think of this novel. And you made a good point. Being a girl who's a "tomboy" is much more socially accepted than being an "effeminate" boy.

  3. This sounds like a thought provoking book. You make a good point there, as parents we want our children to be true to themselves, but it can be hard for them if society views them as being 'different'.
    Excellent review. I like that last quote about identity.

    1. Thanks! And yes, I love that quote.

  4. This sounds like a powerful read. It's interesting to wonder how much we have changed as a society in the past 50 years - are our reactions different today than they would have been in the 1960s?


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