In the prologue to Kathleen Winter’s 2010 debut novel, Annabel, a young girl and her blind father are navigating a river in a canoe. The young girl spots a lone white caribou, ghost-like, separated from its herd by thousands of miles. “Why would any caribou leave her herd to walk, solitary, thousands of miles … the only reason . . . is if she were lost.” And in the next moment, as the young girl stretches out her arms toward the caribou, the canoe capsizes, and father and daughter drown.
It is a powerful opening for this award-winning debut novel set in 1968 Labrador, a remote village in Canada and one that portends much of what is to come. Thomasina Baikie, the grieving mother and widow, is a midwife and delivers many of the babies in the village, a village of rigid conformity to gender roles where the men hunt and trap and the women cook and sew. In the warmth of the woodstove and the companionship of the women of Labrador, Thomasina delivers a baby to Jacinta and Treadway Blake.
Immediately after the birth, Thomasina and Jacinta recognize what is different about the baby, but Thomasina swaddles the baby before the others will notice that the child has been born with both male and female genitalia. Jacinta with all her heart wants her baby to live the way it has been born. But Treadway makes a choice. “He’s going to be a boy. I’m going to call him Wayne.”
The doctor concurs; surgery is performed, and Wayne begins a regimen of drugs that will render him more male than female. Wayne will not know the truth of his medication and his surgery until many years later. In her heart, Jacinta mourns the loss of her daughter, and Thomasina, who has also lost her daughter, calls Wayne by her name, Annabel in their quiet moments together. “To Thomasina,” Winter writes, “people were rivers, always ready to move from one state of being into another. It was not fair, she felt, to treat people as if they were finished beings. Everyone was always becoming and unbecoming.” Thomasina will be the one adult that Wayne can consistently count on as he navigates his unpredictable future.
Winters writing is ethereal, her language poetic – her descriptions of the physical landscape often reflect the emotional one. It is almost always winter, with brief reprieves of summer; chill winds blow across the landscape, and the sun is so distant it does not warm.
Though Wayne is raised as a boy there remains deep inside the ghost of a girl. As a young boy, he is enthralled with synchronized swimming and Jacinta buys him a sequined orange suit to assuage his desire, but he must hide it under his bed so that his father does not see it. Treadway tries to encourage all masculine traits and eschews the feminine in Wayne. As Wayne enters adolescence his best friend Wally is a girl, and he loves her the way girls love their best friends. They build a bridge over a creek and decorate it with swaths of bright-colored cloth, beads and lights. There, Wally draws bridges based on post cards from Thomasina and Wally practices singing opera. Tragically, something happens that causes a fissure in their relationship that neither can cross until they become adults.
There will be years where Wayne is adrift, confused about his identity and unsure of whom to talk to about it. Years when he wishes he could talk to his mother who has walled herself inside of guilt and grief or his father, who wishes he were someone else, or Wally, who it seems is the only one who would truly understand and accept him. Later, much later, he will find Wally again and in doing so, will find his way back to his true self.
Annabel is a heartbreakingly beautiful novel, one that addresses the topic of intersex children with grace and examines the fault lines of family and identity with a rare sensitivity.
I recommend Annabel for fans of Middlesex or The Danish Girl. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.