4: Annabel

AnnabelAnnabel by Kathleen Winter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the Fall 2013 VPL Book Sale.

Read in March 2014.

View all my reviews

I decided to read this after I listened to Canada Reads 2014 because a) it sounded like a compelling story and b) it was already on my shelf thanks to the library book sale. Here’s the trailer:

I was pulled into the story right from the beginning, and thought the first part of the book (about up the point where Wayne starts school and Thomasina leaves town) was very good. And then, gradually it lost its hold on me. In retrospect, thinking about it, it had the feel of a book where the first chapters had been polished and reworked for a long time, so that every detail was perfect, while the rest had been finished much more quickly and not given the same level of attention. Writers, you know what I mean. Which is not to say that the latter half of the book wasn’t good, it just wasn’t quite as compelling as the beginning.

In 1968 Labrador, Jacinta and Treadway have an intersex baby (in this case, the baby has both male and female parts: one testicle and one ovary, a penis and a vagina). Treadway decides they will raise the baby as a boy, and name him Wayne. (Note: I’m using male pronouns because that’s what the book uses.)

Their neighbor, Thomasina, who helped deliver baby Wayne at home, is the only other person (at first; later there are doctors/nurses) who knows their secret. Shortly after Wayne’s birth, Thomasina’s husband and daughter (Annabel) drown in a canoeing accident. Thomasina starts calling the baby Annabel. Wayne likes the secret nickname but doesn’t understand it until much later.

As Wayne grows up, steps are taken (surgery, hormones) to ensure his masculine characteristics develop and his feminine ones are suppressed. But the Annabel side of Wayne refuses to disappear. She likes synchronized swimming and sparkly stereotypically-girly stuff. Which, sigh. Just once I’d like to see someone write about gender without mentioning clothing/activity preferences. Those are social norms, not biological imperatives. Anyway. Jacinta supports Wayne’s “feminine” interests but hides them from Treadway, who wants Wayne to grow up to be a manly man.

VPL Fall Book SaleAfter a promising beginning, the story drifts. Thomasina leaves Labrador to go traveling. Treadway goes out on his trapline. Jacinta retreats into herself. I got interested in these characters and then their development just stopped. Which leaves us with Wayne. And here I run into the same problem as the last book I read. There’s not enough thinking—insight into Wayne’s mind. There is some—it’s definitely not the extreme blankness of Mary in The Outlander—but Wayne’s mind (especially after the dramatic incident spoiled in the Canada Reads debates) should have been buzzing and we just didn’t see enough of that.

Also, there are strange gaps. For example, Jacinta is originally from St. John’s and it’s made clear that she misses it very much. However, she never goes back there for a visit and there’s no insight into why. This needs an explanation! It’s not like she’s on the other side of the world. It’s a ferry trip.  (According to their website, it’s 1 hour, 45 min. So it would be like living on Vancouver Island and never going to visit your family in Vancouver.)

At times it felt like Winter was aiming for magical realism but didn’t quite get there. The improbable injury that robs Wayne’s friend Wally of her singing voice, the impossible [SPOILER ALERT] self-pregnancy. The thing is, neither of these things were necessary. Wally’s voice could have been lost in some other more plausible fashion. Wayne’s pregnancy didn’t lead to anything plot-wise, so was it even necessary? Especially since there was an incident later in the book that could have led to a plausible pregnancy, with plenty of dramatic fallout. (I think that would have been a much better choice story-wise. Terrible for Wayne, obviously, but good for the story.)

The pop culture references—music, TV—felt off to me, like they were maybe 5-10 years older than they should be. And at first I thought, well, maybe it’s supposed to be indicative of the fact they live in the boonies and didn’t have access to new music, but then I remembered that the radio station I liked best at the end of high school, because it played the newest music, was from St. John’s (we got some radio stations along with our cable service)—and surely they can pick up St. John’s radio stations in Labrador. So.

I was really thrown off by the fact Wayne was born 1968, but his class graduates in 1985. There’s no mention of his entire class skipping a grade. Does Labrador not have grade 12? I actually went and looked this up. And I found that in fact Newfoundland/Labrador didn’t have grade 12… until 1983. Kathleen Winter was born in 1960 so she would have graduated after grade 11, which is probably why she wrote it like that. But still, it doesn’t fit with the timeline of the story—Wayne’s class would have graduated in 1986—and an editor should have caught it. (I don’t blame the author—honest mistake—but how did everyone who read the manuscript before it was published miss it? Well, at least I learned something new 😉 )

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