Annabel by Kathleen Winters
“Have you read Annabel?” is the question I keep overhearing this summer. Written by a Montrealer, set in Labrador and about male/female roles as exemplified by hermaphrodism, this book has qualities to interest a large audience. There is also the wisdom and sensitivity of the author, her love and knowledge of life in Labrador, her understanding of children and teenagers, her quest for the best in people, her full characterizations and her interesting questions about the dichotomy and harmony of the sexes which make this book the read of the season.
This is the second book that I have read about hermaphrodism and I found it more reflective, focused and sensitive than Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Annabel makes us think about the sublimated side in all of us, our sex role models and expectations, and provokes the question of whether there is a middle way which would incorporate the best traits of both sexes.
Annabel is a first novel and some of its bones do show through. The symbolism of bridges becomes laboured after a while and the friend and teacher, Thomasina, is too evidently a deus ex machina figure. I find that she comes in and out of the action too fortuitously and impermanently and her role becomes plot-turning rather than characterization.
I was also disappointed that Winter was unable to sustain the character of Jacinta. She is a strong figure early in the narrative and embraces the fullness and opportunities of her child’s potential. But Winters does not seem able to find a niche for her as Thomasina and Treadway become more influential in plot development.
Winter’s interest shifts to the complexities of Treadway who is a master of woodland lore and an auto-didact of considerable depth. His character experiences the most growth as he denies, struggles, and finally accepts and supports his son’s sexual duality.
Winter’s prose is a delight to read. She tells her story with details that are restrained and evocative and have the ring of truth. As Jacinta’s marriage falters under the stress of Wayne’s challenges, we read: (p.163) “Jacinta swept the floors and wiped the counters, then got a bucket of red-hot water with Pine-Sol in it and a mop, and scoured the kitchen floor and hallway. She dumped the water down the toilet and filled the bucket again, then put rubber gloves on and took a rag and a scrubbing brush and got down on her knees on an old flat cushion and washed every speck of dirt out of the corners and of the baseboards, then she washed down the stairs by hand, and polished the toaster and the fridge, and washed the fingerprints off the walls near all the light switches and off the doors near the doorknobs and off the telephone. She went outside and then came in again to smell with a fresh nose how clean the house smelled, and then she got in bed beside sleeping Treadway and thought how good it would be when he went on his trapline, how there would be fewer footprints to clean.”
Another time, the lonely Jacinta explains why she enjoys listening to the radio: (p.93) “I know it’s not real company, but the radio is something. It’s a comforting voice that lets you know you’re not alone in the world. I need that.”
We hear more truth from Treadway as he tries to give his son some fatherly advice:(p.103) “ Boys, in Labrador, Wayne, are like a wolf pack. We’ve got to be like members of the dog family. We’ve got to know what each other is doing. That’s how you survive.”
Winter’s descriptions are sharply observed and cleverly incorporated into the narrative by including the characters’ response to them. When Wayne moves, on his own, to St. John’s, NFLD, we read: (p.316) “He could smell the ocean in a different way than he had smelled it in Labrador. Sewage ran into the harbour here, and there was a lot of it, with gulls circling over the outlet down below Caine’s Grocery, and you could smell it. There were also smells of seaweed, and fish and chips and vinegar from a van on the street. The houses were much brighter yellows, reds and greens than in Labrador, and they were tall and narrow and stuck together. The houses looked bright but stern, and the air was so clear the colours shouted out loud at him, and he felt weary from the force of all the corners and the sharp lines of the clapboard.”
Winter ends her book optimistically with the hope that Wayne will find his niche in academia where study and ideas and open-mindedness are more important than sexual divisions. And she gives her character that greatest of gifts: a true friend. She leaves her readers with a new appreciation of the distant land of Labrador, some memorable characters, and a story that is fresh, challenging and a delight to read.