Your first novel, Annabel (2010), set in Croydon Harbour, a fictional village located in the remote Labrador region, on the east coast of Canada, follows the intersex character Wayne / Annabel, from childhood to adulthood.
Wayne was born at home in 1968. His father, Treadway, a hunter of few words and intense convictions, anxiously awaits while his wife, Jacinta, gives birth. Thomasina, the neighbor who accompanied her, is the first to realize that the newborn has a combination of male and female genitalia. Medical conventions of that time and place prescribed that the child should pass by a surgical procedure, in order to become “socially convincing” as a male member. The surgical alteration is accompanied by the systematic intake of hormonal drugs throughout Wayne’s childhood and puberty.
Only Treadway, Jacinta, Thomasina and the local physicians share this child’s secret. By Treadway’s imposition, it is decided that no one shall reveal to Wayne his condition as intersex. Thomasina – a woman who, in her own way, deviates from the local conventions – rebels against this decision: in secret, she calls the child Annabel, the same name she had given her daughter, who later died in an accident.
In that small rural town, surrounded by a remote and wild landscape, inhospitable conditions of survival require that people should be resilient. To this end, the social roles to be played by men and women in the village are clearly and rigidly defined: husbands hunt, wives do housework. In this scenario, Treadway fears that there would be no room for a child who opposes the social expectations of how a man should or should not behave. He decides that the child will be brought up as a boy.
Jacinta opposes this decision, and prefers to respect the male and female identities of the baby. She finds herself constantly haunted by the prospect of having secretly murdered her own daughter, by submitting to her husband’s imposition. However, this subtle network of lies implodes itself, when Wayne reaches puberty. Unlike many women in Labrador, Annabel, as an internal twin huddled inside Wayne’s body, is not subdued to the local rigidity, and simply will not let herself to be suppressed.
Wayne / Annabel grows as an outsider in the locality. Labrador is a sparsely populated region with an inhospitable climate; a limited and limiting place; a threshold whose borders are as thin as the main character’s sexuality. The landscape is bleak, the winds are cold, the work is hard, the local hunters are taciturn and live half of the year holed up in the woods, while their women are hidden indoors. This frozen and asphyxiating landscape seems to be the perfect setting for a story about imprisonment, limits and loneliness. You treat identity as a space that is inhabited: the novel explores the correlation between embodying an identity, filling a social role and inhabiting a skin / a home – as well as the many ways in which leaving a place also involves abandoning one’s identity and assuming the skin of another.
The novel has its weaknesses. Annabel, especially in the first half, emulates the mythical and magical tone taken over by many narratives of intersexuality. In the second half of the book, a secondary medical plot – which allegedly works as a metaphor for Wayne’s identity – gives the book a tabloid tone, as it takes an unnecessarily sensationalist path, in a plot that until then had successfully avoided such pitfalls.
In your attempt to explore gender ambiguity, you seem to be held back by assumptions that sometimes contradict and weaken some of the book’s aspirations. The plot is constrained to (and is thus simplified by) the same binary model that it had initially proposed to overthrow or transcend: the idea that the feminine side of Wayne necessarily corresponds to an ideal of sweetness, softness, fragility and emotionality simply repeats the same social expectations of gender you wanted to discuss.
There is no room here for an Annabel who is not passive nor gentle, for a mutable Annabel, or an Annabel who looks like Wayne. Your attempt to define what gender means turns out reductive – which, in turn, presupposes the insistence that gender should mean something static, marked by a pronoun, a name, a fixed adjective. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if you had explored a line that is only mentioned in the book: the idea of gender as a dynamic category, as a verb, something that continually destroys and rebuilds identity categories. To use an intersex character exclusively as a feminist parable deprived the plot of the disruptive and unpredictable potential it might have assumed.
The book’s strength lies in other fronts though. Noteworthy are your writing style, as well as the introspective approach you adopted, through the use of a third-person narrator whose focus alternates between the central characters: the particular solitude of each of them, in a restricted and subtly violent world, that’s what you explore very well in this novel. The book does also a competent job in depicting how the expectations of a given society colonize its members’ bodies. Loneliness is the matter with which you work best: not only the protagonist, but all of your central characters are, in their way, and often unconsciously, outsiders.
“The beast was vicious. She hurtled and would not back up. If she got hit in the chest with brutality erected by the street, she kept going. Her pain threshold was high. She was not pretty. She prowled, animal-like, uncivilized. She walked all night. She was without language. She watched how everyone else was doing. How tame they were, living in the same wind, night, and wilderness in wich she hunted and was hunted.”
– Kathleen Winter, Annabel
Dionysos riding on a panther, floor mosaic, House of the Masks, Delos, 120-80 BC
About the book
- House of Anansi Press, 2010, 464 p. Goodreads;
- Jonathan Cape, 2011, 480 p. Goodreads;
- Vintage, 2012, 480 p. Goodreads;
- My rating: 4,5 stars;
- The book was a shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2010 and for the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2011;
- The song Annabel, from the album Tales of Us (2013), by Alison Goldfrapp, was inspired by the novel: