Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 3

November 7, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Annabel. Kathleen Winter; $32.95 cloth 978-0-88784-236-8, 472 pp., House of Anansi Press.

Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Winterset Award (BoYs)

Metcalf-Rooke Award (BoYs)

From the publisher: “Haunting and sweeping in scope, Annabel is a compelling tale about one person’s struggle to discover the truth in a culture that shuns contradiction.”

From reviews: Annabel’s strength lies in probing the dilemma of sexuality and self-knowledge. I have never read such an intimate portrait of a person struggling to live inside a self that the world sees as a dreadful mistake. Born with the capacity to be both male and female, Wayne must become one and lose the other. His parents, too, must embrace a son and lose a daughter.” – Katherine Govier, National Post

“Annabel is less about chromosomal anomaly than it is about human potential, for cruelty and neglect and ignorance as much as for tolerance and generosity and strength. What Winter has achieved here is no less a miracle than the fact of Wayne’s birth.” – The Globe and Mail

“Winter exerts superb control over material that could easily turn exploitative. At the same time, she does not retreat from describing medical interventions that strike the reader as absolutely gothic.” – Donna Bailey Nurse, Montreal Gazette

My reaction: According to the Intersex Society of North America, intersex births, those “in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male,” account for one in 1,500 to 2,000 of all births: not a hugely uncommon number by any stretch. Nevertheless, human prejudice continues to insist on viewing sexuality as a dichotomy rather than a continuum, a subject that is given sensitive and nuanced treatment in Winter’s novel.

Winter employs the more outdated term “hermaphroditism,” which is wholly appropriate given that the story takes place between 1968 and the late 1980s. But Winter also mines the term for its poetic and mythical connotations:

Some of her students could read marks on a trail winding through eighty miles of wilderness but they were not good readers of English textbooks. Each student would be responsible for researching one persona: Artemis, Hera, Dionysus, Aphrodite, Apollo, Hermes, Demeter, Ceres. There was a deity to represent every human characteristic, and Thomasina had found them all in her class, though the students did not know it, from the control and manipulation of Artemis reflected in Donna Palliser to the musical Euterpe in Wally Michelin and the presence of a descendant of the child of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus, in Wayne Blake.

Thomasina is the only person in the small Labrador town of Croydon Harbour other than Wayne’s parents, Treadway and Jacinta, to know the truth: the child who is being raised as a boy was born possessing the sex organs of both genders.

The juxtaposition of an intersex child with a community that adheres to rigidly conventional notions of masculine and feminine identities provides Annabel with much of its narrative tension; even when Wayne grows old enough to escape to the big city of St. John’s, he can’t evade the prejudices and bigotries of a society that is unable to accept difference. This is manifested most directly during a harrowing attack in a van, a scene made all the more potent for being rendered almost entirely in dialogue.

Winter’s great strength is her refusal to reduce her characters to individual traits or tics; every major character in the novel is imbued with contradictions and complexities. This tendency is most evident in Treadway, who is persistent in his attempts to encourage his son’s masculine side, but is in no way a caricature of a macho working man. A thoughtful soul who reads Pascal’s Pensées and the poetry of Robert Frost during his months alone on the traplines, Treadway is driven by love for his offspring; his desire to raise his child as a male is a sincere attempt to save him from the scourges of a community that would be unable to accept the essential ambiguity of his character.

Winter occasionally pushes this too far, as in a patently absurd scene involving a synchronized ballet performed by a pair of backhoes, but for the most part, she manages to effectively portray her characters in all their complicated humanity. Late in the novel, Treadway, who is able to navigate the barren wilderness using only the stars and animal tracks as guides, is forced to call his son for help when he finds himself hopelessly lost in the city; the sequence is understated and quietly heartbreaking.

Annabel is a rarity in CanLit: a long novel that never feels long, a lyrical novel that rarely feels overwrought, a novel steeped in a sense of place that never loses sight of the humanity that is its lifeblood. By subordinating her central thematic concerns to novelistic elements – story, character, incident – that often seem quaint or out-of-fashion these days, Winter has created a fictional world that exudes life. By embracing ambiguity and contradiction, she has paradoxically provided one of the most honest portraits of a fictional family in recent memory.


3 Responses to “Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 3”
  1. Trish says:

    Hi Steven,

    Thought you might find it interesting that Kathleen based the “backhoe ballet” on a real-life event. As in, it actually happened. Crazy, right? Thanks for the great review.