Annabel is a seemingly scandalous story. Our protagonist, Wayne Blake, is born with both male and female genitalia, in the heart of rural Labrador, in 1968. Wayne is raised as a boy, and his mother, Jacinta; father, Treadway; and neighbour, Thomasina keep the secret of his dual sex to themselves. When Treadway decides he must be raised as a boy (and names him Wayne, the least androgynous name imaginable), Jacinta secretly grieves the loss of a daughter.
As Wayne grows up, Treadway is unable to keep his son's feminine side hidden. Wayne is pre-occupied with synchronised swimming and European architecture, and has no interest in his father's hunting or other masculine pursuits. Wayne's physical appearance is more feminine than other boys, and his parents must give him hormones to stop him from developing breasts. As Wayne matures and learns of his secret, he must make the choice to either accept his dual gender, or continue living as a man.
If you feel that a story about a hermaphrodite is too heavy or disturbing, let me encourage you to pick this book up anyway. Despite the controversial and seemingly overtly sexual nature of the topic, Winter constantly steps away from making the story sensationalistic. Instead, she emphasises nature during Wayne's birth, "at the beginning of March, during the first signs of spring breakup of the ice--at time of great importance to Labradorians who hunted ducks for food-and he was born, like most children in that place in 1968, surrounded by women his mother had known all her married life...", reminding the reader that Wayne's duality is an act of nature.
Certainly, the novel contains moments of sadness, shock, depression, and violence, but this novel is not train-crash, I-want-to-look-away-but-I-can't reading in the manner of Angela Carter. Winter's ability to humanise Wayne with delicacy is one of the aspects of the book that I found the most admirable.
Also worthy of admiration is Wayne's supporting cast, who are complex and richly drawn, from the sensible neighbour turned widowed travelling bohemian, Thomasina, to his wistful mother Jacinta, who gave up the city she loves for a rural back country she feels out of place in. The secondary character that I found most compelling is Wayne's overtly masculine father Treadway, whose macho inability to accept his son's femininity is offset by his love of nature and his dogs, his thirst for reading, and his own inability to fit in with other men.
Also of interest is Wayne's childhood female friend, Wally (several secondary characters close to Wayne are given androgynous names). Given a somewhat boyish appearance, Wally is in a way Wayne's alter ego, something of a physical embodiment of his female self, Annabel (hence the title). Winter avoids cliches by leaving Wayne's relationship with Wally without definition, much as Wayne's sexuality as a whole remains up in the air.
However, by far the most memorable and absorbing aspect of Annabel is the beautiful and evocative depiction of wintry, lonely rural Labrador. White caribou, snow, and calm rivers pepper a world that is both peaceful and deeply alive, with a "striation, a pulse, as the land drinks light and emits a vibration. Sometimes you can see it with your naked eye, strips of light coming of the land." This sense of a throbbing, yet quiet natural world is so absorbing that I felt buried in it for the first couple of chapters. The beauty and tone of Winter's setting is reflected in the beautiful Canadian hardback edition: a soft natural scene with white and pale, ice blue.
Annabel brings us a new author able to tackle shocking subjects with delicacy, and to bring out the quiet beauty of seemingly tragic lives. I look forward to many years of being on Winter's bandwagon.