“A child’s worry was not like an adult’s. It gnawed deep, and was so unnecessary. Why did people not realize children could withstand the truth? Why did adults insist on filling children with the deceptions their own parents had laid on them, when surely they remembered how it had felt to lie in bed and cry over fears no one had bothered to help them face.”
Jacinta and Treadway Blake have their first child in Croydon Harbour, Labrador, in 1968. The baby is born with ambiguous genitalia, and Treadway makes the decision to raise the child as a boy. Jacinta defers to him despite her misgivings. The only other person in Croydon Harbour who knows the truth is Thomasina, who was present at the home birth. The child is named Wayne, and raised ignorant of truth. Both Jacinta and Thomasina try to nurture Wayne’s feminine side, but Treadway is determined to ensure that his child grows into a man. In secret, Thomasina refers to Wayne as Annabel, and it is this name Wayne comes to identify with the parts of his identity that his father is unable to accept. Kept in ignorance of his own secret, Wayne cannot understand why he is such a disappointment to his father, but eventually time will reveal the truth, and Wayne will be forced to face up to the consequences of the choices his parents made for him at birth.
Although it was published in 2009, Annabel is set in the sixties and seventies, and as such, Wayne is referred to as a hermaphrodite throughout. The more current term is intersex, and Kathleen Winter uses it in her interviews about the book, but in the story she uses the language of the period. I didn’t feel that the use of historically accurate terminology was necessarily problematic. Although the terminology surrounding intersex issues has changed, the story is not as dated as the use of this term might lead us to believe. The reality of the way doctors approach the intersex condition has not changed as much as one might expect in the past forty years, and as a result, Annabel remains relevant despite being set in the past. Non-binary gender expression is still a controversial subject, and by taking multiple points of view, Winter is able to explore the perspectives of several people who are trying to understand Wayne’s situation.
In addition to giving Wayne room to explore non-binary gender roles, I was impressed by the way in which Winter brought the Labrador setting to life. Wayne’s experience in rural Labrador as a child is very different from the experience he eventually has as an adult in St. John’s. The importance of the setting is expressed both through the descriptions of the landscape itself, and through Treadway’s relationship with it. Treadway spends much of his time out on his trap line, making his livelihood in a way that is dying out as the children of Croydon Harbour choose to move to the cities. There is a generational gap in Annabel that is expressed not just through the differing ideas of gender, but in the passing of Treadway’s rural lifestyle. It is difficult for Treadway to accept not only Wayne’s ambiguous gender expression, but that his way of life may be unappealing for reasons that have nothing to do with manliness.
Annabel touched off a heated debate about gender identity on Day Three of Canada Reads 2014, which eventually led to it being the third book eliminated, after Year of the Flood, and Half-Blood Blues. Wab Kinew argued that the gender roles in Annabel were not as progressive as they could have been, particularly given Treadway and Jacinta’s traditional marriage. However, I think that the way they stick to traditional gender roles is what creates the tension between their experience and Wayne’s. Jacinta’s acceptance of Treadway’s authority over her is so implicit that she is willing to defer to Treadway even at the expense of her child’s well-being; she belives Treadway has made the wrong choice, but she does nothing to oppose him. She is even a little bit relieved at being absolved of the responsibility of making that decision. Treadway is too trapped by his own ideas of masculinity to grant Wayne the leeway to express himself. Having been widowed, Thomasina inhabits a much less traditional role, and it is she who is Wayne’s most tireless advocate, though she is not always a good one. She is not his parent, and so she must constantly question how much it is appropriate for her to do and say, and she is hampered by her own grief at the loss of her daughter. Her decision to call Wayne by her dead daughter’s name is particularly disturbing, and I think she comes to regret the way she handled the situation. However, I think Annabel succeeds in challenging gender roles because both Thomasina and Jacinta want Wayne to be able to express his feminine side, but that acceptance does not come with the pressure for him to transition to female. They are comfortable acknowledging that Wayne’s gender exists in a liminal space that does not fit into the binary gender framework.
The decisive factor in the debate of Annabel was Kathleen Winter’s decision to symbolize the clash of male and female within Wayne’s body through a medically impossible self-impregnation. The point was first raised by Wab Kinew in the Day Two debates, and it returned again today to dominate the final discussion of Annabel. Samantha Bee, who otherwise loved the book, was swayed by Kinew’s argument, and Donovan Bailey cast the decisive vote to eliminate Annabel. As much as I otherwise loved Annabel, there is no denying that the pregnancy is visceral and disturbing, and it is troubling that the catalyst for Wayne’s exploration of his gender identity is something that would not be experienced by an intersex person. Although I think it is probable that Winter intended it as a physical expression of the emotional clash of male and female inside Wayne, I don’t think that is advisable to use such a plot device when most people know very little about the realities of the intersex condition. The event is treated very matter-of-factly in the book, which could perpetuate misconceptions about being intersex. I think Annabel is a stronger novel than Cockroach, and I would have liked to see it go on to face The Orenda in the final, but I think that Sarah Gadon’s refusal to acknowledge the potential problems with this plot point alienated fellow panelists who were otherwise sympathetic to the book, leading to its elimination.
Already read and enjoyed Annabel? I recommend Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin.