Annabel by Kathleen Winter

For Readers interested in:

  • Gender issues
  • Relationships between parents and children
  • Unique coming of age books

The Book:

I finished this one up in a flash! Kathleen Winter has created such an easy and beautiful read, with a heartfelt plot and memorable characters. This book is about a little person born in the late 1960s to a mother and father in Labrador. The birth of this child is a happy occasion, but filled with secrets. This beautiful and perfect child was born ( as is 1-2% of the general population) with gender ambiguity. Treadwater and Jacinta decide to call the baby Wayne, and to bring the child up a male. His vagina is surgically closed, as is this side of his identity.

As Wayne grows, he find himself caught between his mother who is comfortable with his duo expression of sexuality and his father who is not. Wayne’s parents love him very much, but they are unable to help him with his gender confusion, especially as he grows older and has to take hormones to turn his body into a man. Wayne doesn’t fit in with the other boys while growing up.

Wayne learns the truth about his gender in high school. He has to have an emergency operation to clear out menstrual blood from his closed vagina. Wayne feels alone and confused. He leaves Labrador for the mainland and finds a job in St. John’s. Wayne tells his family that he wants to stop the hormone therapy, and let his nature take over, for better or for worse. This frightens him and his father, but it is something Wayne feels he must do.

Wayne starts to become more feminine. An acquaintance notices, and sexually assaults Wayne. He becomes frightened and alone. His father, hears the news of his rape and leaves Labrador for the first time to come and support his son. Treadwater realizes that although he is unhappy that Wayne has stopped his hormones, the love he feels for the person, Wayne, is strong. His father’s love remains constant despite Wayne’s own identity inconstancy.

This book was a good one. I read it quickly, and had a hard time putting it down. I thought Wayne was a beautiful and gentle person. Someone I would love to be friends with. The characters were well-developed and involving.

Kathleen Winter’s strength is in her soft and supple narrative. Winter is also clever, there was often quite a bit of ambiguity in the language used to describe the Labrador landscape. Using intersexuality as a metaphor for her homeland – a between place that can’t be defined clearly. The plot is not for everyone, but I was drawn to it. It is intriguing to contemplate issues of gender. I finished the novel deeply sympathetic for Wayne. I felt like the 2% or so of the population that are born intersex are not treated with respect in our culture.

A book for everyone? Not really. It deals with sensitive gender issues that might make some people feel uncomfortable. But I found it fascinating and reminds me of two other novels I’ve enjoyed with intersexuality themes. One: Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides which uses the theme of intersexuality to explore the plight of American immigrants; and two: The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaege. Thinking about Vanderhaege has made me excited. I think I am going to reread The Last Crossing and review it soon!

Also, I found a great blog for people interested in Atlantic Canadian fiction. Here is a review of Annabel from Salty Ink. It’s a blog that promotes literature set in Eastern Canada.

There are two other books I’ve reviewed set on the East Coast (Cape Breton and Newfoundland):

  1. The Birth House by Ami McKay
  2. February by Lisa Moore. (click on the titles to read them).

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Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

Who?

  • Short story lovers.
  • Those who like current American literature

The Book:

I was interested in the hype around this book, and Maile Meloy is an awesome handle ( I often have a quirky reason for being interested in a book). This book was also on a few recommendation lists (here, and here). Both Ways is the Only Way I Like It may be an awkward name, but it’s not an awkward read. This collection of short stories feels very American. (I’ll explain later) I generally focus my attention on Canadian literature, mainly because I enjoy it more and there is usually less online about them. While reading this book, I felt like I was peeking into a different culture in a way I wouldn’t have expected. The stories are all set somewhere in Middle America.

The stories centre on the theme of parents and children. Or, more broadly, being responsible or irresponsible. My favorite story was the first one, about a crippled polio cowboy who is in love with a woman from a random encounter. I also enjoyed the story about a man whose wealthy grandmother shows up on his doorstep after being dead for a month. The characters were decent, and the plots concrete.

I didn’t love the book, and I didn’t hate it either. What I couldn’t really figure out was why it was listed as a best seller for so long. What made it so popular? Her name? The Americans’ great love of short stories?

Meloy’s narrative was too similar for each character. The only truly memorable ones were the two I mentioned (in my humble opinion). It felt like I was reading 11 different life plots for the same character.

But certainly, the themes of the short stories held my attention, and as the title suggests, show the incongruent feelings that lie beneath us: how we want to be the child and the parent. We want to inherit money from people we don’t like, but we don’t want to pretend we like them. We want to have wild, surprising sex, but we don’t want to hurt our spouses and have an affair. We want to be protected, but also independent. Meloy did well to show this commonality. I don’t know, it might just be an American thing – like the unabashed love of processed cheese ( just kiddin’).

Cheers!


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