Saturday, 28 January 2012

Annabel by Kathleen Winter


It's rural Canada in the 1960s and Jacinta Blake gives birth to a child that has features of the both the male and the female.  Advised by doctors who have never seen a true hermaphrodite before, the child is bought up as Wayne around parents that are always anxiously watching him for any signs of 'girlishness'.   When he hits his teenage years, Wayne has problems with hormones and self-identity and must slowly come to terms with being who he is, even if that person is very different from those around him.  Annabel was short-listed for the Orange Prize.

Annabel is a beautiful, haunting book and I can't say how much I enjoyed it.  Winter explores the concept of gender thoroughly - is it biological?  Social?  Hormonal?  I really liked the inter-play of how, having decided that Wayne would be a boy, his parents were constantly on alert and paranoid about normal childhood behaviours - is he being too girly? Is it normal for a boy to like this? Is his voice deep enough?  They had the constant fear that Wayne's 'secret' would be discovered and he would turn into the victim of abuse and prejudice.  In this way, Annabel also said a lot about life in small rural communities.

One of the things I appreciated most about this book was the characters.  At points told from multiple persepectives, all of the characters had real depth about them.  My favourite was Wayne's father, Treadway, who at first seemed stereotypically 'manly' but actually had a lot of acceptance and simplicity about him.   All three characters who knew about Wayne's birth (his parents and Jacinta's friend, Thomasina), were in some way destroyed by the information, the keeping of the secret, and the damage that might be happening to Wayne.  Their stories were just as interesting as the story of Wayne himself.

But what I liked most about Annabel was that it offered no real answers.  There was no happy ending where Wayne finally discovered he was a boy or a girl, there was just compromise and probably difficulties still to come.  Hermaphroditism is a pretty sensationalist issue to write about, but Winter doesn't glamorise it or set out to shock people, she gives a sensitive account of what it might be like to have to accept that about yourself.  She also completely draws you into the world of the book to the extent that you have to take a few seconds to acclimatise yourself to the here and now when you put the book down.

Highly recommended.

Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2010
Score: 5 out of 5

22 comments:

  1. I remember reading about this one when it was up for the Orange prize. It sounds very good, and sounds like it deals with this subject very sensitively, great review.

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    1. It is a very good book, but then books short-listed for the Orange prize usually are. I haven't read a bad one yet...

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  2. I keep seeing this at the library and always wondered about it. It sounds like it warrants a closer look, I think.

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    1. It definitely does. I think you would enjoy it :)

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  3. The whole idea of gender identity especially in rural communities seems a rich theme. Here in Australia with it's overtly masculine culture I can imagine what impact such a circumstance would have. This sounds like a great read, will now look for this one. Thank you.

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    1. It's definitely a rich theme as in the rural community in the novel, gender roles are strictly defined - the men hunt and maintain properties, the women work inside the house. I do hope you get a chance to read this, I think you would really enjoy it.

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  4. I saw a lot of attention given to this book over in Shelf Unbound magazine last year but haven't seen it covered by any bloggers so far! Great review, sounds like a very thought provoking and lovely read.

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    1. I think it's gone a bit under the radar, despite being short-listed for the Orange prize. I would love to see it receive a bit more love, it's a wonderful book.

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  5. I heard about this one some time back, but completely forgot about it. I'm a little shocked that I haven't heard more about this, but it does seem like a lot of last yrs wonderful titles were ignored by either the public or critics.

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    1. This book certainly has gone under the radar - maybe it is because the author and the setting are Canadian? It's a shame more people haven't read it because it's a fantastic book.

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  6. I just know this is an excellent book.
    Mike Draper

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  7. I haven't seen this one before, but you can tell from the cover that it's going to be a provocative book.

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    1. The cover does make it look provocative but the issue is dealt with so sensitively that actually it doesn't come across of provocative.

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  8. This is one I REALLY want to read, so I'm glad it worked so well for you! Great review!

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    1. You must read it - I know you will love it!

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  9. This book sounds rich, powerful and poignant. The characters sound wonderful and so realistic and I like that Winter tells their story regarding Hermaphroditism, too. I don't know a lot about this issue and would like to. I read another terrific review of this book on the blog Book Chatter last year and wanted to read it. Unfortunately this book got lost in the shuffle of life so I really appreciate your great review and reminder that I have yet to read this important and well-written book.

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    1. Amy, it really is and I hope you do get a chance to read it. I've read another book since finishing this one but Annabel is still on my mind and I know it's one I'll think of for a long time and reread in the future.

      So many books get lost in the shuffle of life...

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  10. Oh wow, this sounds like a very serious kind of book, something one wouldn't just breeze through. I can only imagine how thought-provoking the novel itself is if your review alone has got my mind working.

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    1. It is serious but it's also a great story, so it didn't feel hard to get through. The perfect balance, I think :)

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  11. I've been eyeing this one since it was long listed for the Orange Prize. And I've since seen it in multiple book stores while shopping. I think I'd really enjoy the social and psychological aspects of the novel and definitely appreciate it more so than anything theatric. Your review leads me to believe that I definitely need to pick it up the next time I come across it.

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  12. This has been a wishlist grasshopper for me, I've lost track of how many times it's been on and off! What puts me off it is that I think I will inevitably compare it with Middlesex which I loved and it will be an unfair comparison. :( Decisions are difficult for a procrastinating Libran...

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