Annabel by Kathleen Winter was definitely not what I expected. It was way better.
When I chose the book Annabel, I really didn’t do my homework. I had no idea what the book was about; I had heard it was good and thought why not read it, really having zero clue of the plot points. However maybe that helped me to appreciate the storyline and writing style of Winter, because I was more surprised when I started reading and discovered that the book was about a child growing up, who was born with both male and female parts (intersex). I know that I planned to post this review before I went on my trip to the cottage, but this book was so good, and I wanted to give myself extra time to prepare everything I wanted to say about it.
The book starts off in 1968, in a small coastal town in Labrador, Canada. Now I have been to Newfoundland before, but this book definitely didn’t have cheery, drinking fishermen in it. Winter paints a desolate and remote town for the reader, which sounds dreadful, but it helps to tell her story.
Only three people are privy to the secret of the intersex child: the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbor and midwife, Thomasina. Treadway makes the decision to raise the child as a boy named Wayne, however Thomasina and Jacinta quietly yearn for and nurture the boy’s female side throughout his life.
I pulled a few quotes just to show the differing opinions of Thomasina, Treadway and Jacinta in the beginning of the books when the child is first born. They all have different ideas about what the child should become.
“That baby is all right the way it is. There’s enough room in this world.” – Thomasina, Annabel by Kathleen Winter.
I don’t want to reveal too many spoilers, but Thomasina suffers a loss at the beginning of the book, and through Treadway and Jacinta’s child Wayne, she tries to overcome that loss. Therefore she calls Wayne by another name, Annabel.
“It had never once occurred to Treadway to do the one thing that lay in the hearts of Jacinta and Thomasina: to let his baby live the way it had been born. That in his mind, would not have been a decision.” – Treadway, Annabel by Kathleen Winter.
Treadway is a serious, practical and hyper-masculine hunter, who grew up in Labrador, and would like a son that follows in his footsteps, just as he followed in his father’s. He pushes Wayne towards masculine activities, but near the end of the book begins to shift his perspective.
“Whenever she imagined her child, grown up without interference from a judgmental world, she imagined its male and female halves as complementing each other, and as being secretly, almost magically powerful.” – Jacinta, Annabel by Kathleen Winter.
After Wayne’s birth, (though she would never think of doing this before) Jacinta becomes protective of the child and hoped that they would let the child grow up as it was intended to be, both male and female. She can see the beauty in it. She hated to put the child through the surgery to suppress its female parts.
One of the major themes in the book is the truth and lies between the characters, and the consequences of those lies. As Wayne enters puberty, Jacinta and Treadway’s marriage begins to fall apart, and the relationships between the characters begins to deteriorate in some respects. The characters just can’t keep the lies contained, and they all come rushing out. The exposed lies however do not repair the relationships, and the characters enter a period of solitude and depression (particularly for Jacinta and Treadway retreats to his forest to hunt). Only when they begin to embrace who they are, do they begin to experience freedom and release. Even some of the secondary characters, such as Wayne’s friend Wally Michelin, face personal struggles before finding the freedom to be themselves.
Finding this freedom and release is never easy, it can be a long battle, particularly for Wayne in the book but also for his family and friends that know his secret. The decision to be free, independent, and yourself is something that I think so many people struggle with on a daily basis, and the decision to strip everything away and just be you, can sometimes be daunting and frightening. What will people think of you? Do they see you as a freak because you are not fitting in with societal constructions of what gender should be?
I would pause and re-read certain sections of the book. While I was reading I did some research into intersex, and I was surprised by how many people are actually born with different genitalia. About 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 children are born with something atypical in terms of genitalia. A lot more people are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won’t show up until later in life. I think a lot of people don’t realize how common intersex actually is, and unfortunately I still think there are alot of misconceptions. For Winter to even approach this topic is an A+ in my book, and for her to tell the story and struggles of this family so elegantly is amazing.
Recently in the news there have been more and more articles/broadcasts about the LGBTTIQQ2SA community after the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of same-sex marriage. Also pictures of Caitlyn Jenner have been present on every social media platform, and Jaden Smith and Miley Cyrus have now started a “gender fluid” revolution. Sometimes I wish I could be as free as them, unafraid to break the norms. Not that I’m uncomfortable in my skin or not myself, I just wish that I would not be afraid to take more risks; afraid of what people may think of me, afraid of the consequences. Its so easy to just hide behind societal norms and not speak out on an issue that has been troubling you, or not wear an outfit that your parents may think is “underdressed” or “out there”.
I hope that more intersex people begin to tell their stories and that there is a little less judgement in the world. I know that even with all the progress that they have made, the LGBTTIQQ2SA community continues to struggle with naysayers and negativity. I hope that begins to change, and it may just be with more time and the sharing of information, experiences, and perspectives.
I’m giving the book a 5/5. I loved it from start to finish. The story grabs you after the first chapter. Even if you are not struggling with being intersex or LGBTQ, you can relate to this book in terms of struggling with something personally that does not correspond with societal norms.
I read a lot while at the cottage, so I will be posting the reviews over the next few days. I am planning to post The Perks of Being a Wallflower tomorrow morning. So check back soon because its going to be a busy week!