Some novelists amaze and astound us with literary pyrotechnics. Some challenge us with narrative contortions and send us scurrying to the nearest dictionary in hopes of untangling their hyper-intellectualized prose. But Kathleen Winter, author of Annabel, is not at all interested in impressing or confusing her readers. From the first page onwards it is clear that Winter is above all else a novelist with a generous heart.
What Winter gives us in Annabel is entry into regions most of us will never know. These uncharted territories are by turn geographical, emotional, metaphysical and physiological. Annabel tells the story of Wayne Blake, a true hermaphrodite (a person with both male and female sexual organs) born in Croyden Harbour, Labrador in 1968. Wayne’s father Treadway is a trapper who is only at home in the bush far from the clatter and artificial light of town. He is a man skilled at survival, able to kill and skin anything from a caribou to a lynx, a man who can talk to birds and hear the moaning song of the northern lights. There is predictability in his world, in the turn of the seasons, in the tasks he performs while he is in town and the way he lives when he is on the trap line. Wayne’s ambiguous sexuality unnerves and unsettles Treadway and he decides that he will do anything necessary to make sure that his infant will be unequivocally a male child. Wayne’s mother Jacinta, a sensitive, educated woman from St. John’s who wandered into Croyden Harbour and never found her way out, is less sure of who her child should be. Jacinta tries in subtle ways to nurture her child’s hidden feminine side, singing lullabies to her little lassie when no one is around, writing the word daughter in mustard on the inside of Wayne’s bologna sandwiches and buying him a coveted orange one-piece bathing suit just like the one worn by a synchronized swimming champion he adores.
The intricate dance performed by Wayne and his parents around the secret that Wayne himself doesn’t know until he is twelve, is at the centre of this novel. And for this reason, the first three quarters of Annabel take place in Labrador. Winter’s richly textured writing style reveals the lushness of a landscape we southerners often think of as stark and unforgiving. The novelist introduces us to a Labrador bush carpeted in green moss, populated by boreal owls, eagles and mythical white caribou, and bursting with berries and wild mushrooms. Croyden Harbour is less appealing, a place where humans attempt to impose their own ideas of civilization and succeed in creating a kind of bungalow-strewn prison.
The last quarter of the novel is set in St. John’s where Winter takes her readers past the brightly coloured houses, through the confounding streets, down to the harbour that is the heart of this city, and deeper into Wayne’s struggle for self determination. And while one might argue that Winter ends Annabel a little too easily, with marital conflicts resolved, sexual ambiguities accepted and long-lost friendships rekindled, this seems like a small price to pay for all that we have been given.
B.A. Markus is a writer and teacher who lives in Montreal but dreams of the great outdoors.