That’s my take-away from a compelling, interesting, but not always comfortable book by Kathleen Winter, Annabel. I followed my husband’s lead and picked this book up for its cover. A woman’s name for a title and an adrogynous young man on the cover, it called for further exploration. Its prologue is interesting, and seems to indicate that Annabel dies, as does her father. Hmmm.
Not till page 17 does the REAL Annabel – the one who will be our protagonist enter the picture. Born in rural Canada in 1968, the baby has a little penis, one testicle and a vagina, and Thomasina, attending Jacinta’s labor and delivery, knows right away that something is wrong. The baby is healthy, but intersexed.
Jacinta loves the baby immediately, is not sure how to think about its indeterminism, but acquiesces when Treadway, her husband, decrees the baby will be a boy. They name him Wayne and begin the long process of making sure – by surgery, drugs, and never, ever admitting Wayne’s feminine character traits – that Wayne is a boy, through and through.
Only Thomasina – the mother of the original Annabel who did, alas, drown – offers a haven for the little one. Wayne’s frequent caretaker, she will call him Annabel. Over time, Jacinta comes to regret her decision as she sees how their family is squashing Wayne’s natural tendencies. And Wayne? Wayne is just one heck of a confused little boy – until puberty sets in and the sewn-shut vagina offers no release for the menstrual blood that fills his/her abdomen. More surgery. More drugs.
What I liked about this book was the measured, unhurried pace and the clear-eyed view of all the characters, who seem like real people with real motivation doing what comes naturally to them. Definitely flawed, but still relatable. As time passes, Treadway withdraws from the family, spending more and more time away, and it is interesting to see the arc of the marriage and how they come back together as a couple after Wayne leaves home.
Also of note is Wayne’s struggle with his own identity. The reader empathizes… have we not all struggled? Although not, perhaps, this much and for this much reason. One disappointing factor for me was that when Wayne/Annabel decides to discontinue taking the medication that masculinizes, it is presented as a “win” for her true femaleness.
I can’t help but compare this book to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which also addresses a hermaphrodite’s journey, albeit in the opposite direction: from baby Calliope to teenage Cal. Middlesex is a much bigger, more sprawling novel, with a bigger, more compelling focus on its characters and allows its hero/heroine more opportunity to address the reader directly and more opportunity to embrace ambiguity and opportunity.
But it seems unfair to compare. Annabel was an interesting, enjoyable read and you should not pass it up just because it is not as good as a Pulitzer Prize winner!