Annabel by Kathleen WinterKathleen Winter’s first novel, with House of Anansi Press, is the story of a young Labrador family secretly raising their hermaphrodite child as a boy. Winter’s prose is lyrical and lonely, yet relatable. Wayne’s story is magnetic, powerful, and has an unexplainable energy.

In 1968, into the beautiful, spare environment of remote coastal Labrador, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor girl, but both at once. Only three people are privy to the secret — the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows to adulthood within the hyper-masculine hunting culture of his father, his shadow-self — a girl he thinks of as Annabel — is never entirely extinguished, and indeed is secretly nurtured by the women in his life.

Haunting, sweeping in scope, and stylistically reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Annabel is a compelling debut novel about one person’s struggle to discover the truth in a culture that shuns contradiction.

From the Publisher, House of Anansi Press

The novel raises a lot of questions about who people are, and why you choose the paths you choose. Each central person (Wayne, Thomasina, Jacinta, and Treadway) considers life’s purpose in a different light. Each character examines how they are connected to the world, Labrador, and the animals and society around them. One of the best quotes is from Thomasina: “Everyone is a snake shedding its skin… We are different people through all our lives.”

Central to the story is everyone’s influence on Wayne. He knows something about him is different, and the three people that know his secret keep it from him at all costs. We follow Wayne on his journey through childhood, puberty, and young adulthood. In each his parents try to nurture and encourage the person they think he should be; his father tries to get him to become the boy he was, his mother tries to hide and stifle his feminine side lest his father find out, and Thomasina blatantly calls him ‘Annabel’ after her own deceased daughter.

Overall I found the book lyrical and well-written. I felt it dragged a little near the end and was difficult to come to an end. I think that perhaps Kathleen Winter didn’t know how to finish the book, because it’s hard to say where Wayne may end up. It’s difficult to tell Wayne/Annabel’s entire life story and satisfy all the readers. It’s one of those rare books where the open-endedness bothers you, but feels like the right decision at the same time.

In an interview in House of Anansi Press, Kathleen Winter was asked, “What do you hope readers will take away from their experience with Wayne and his shadow-self, Annabel?” Winter’s reply really hit home with me about understanding why someone acts the way they do:

I’d like readers to see Wayne/Annabel the way they see themselves, and look at the “other” gender within themselves. I feel point of view is everything, in life and in literature, and I hope the book treats the points of view held by its divergent characters with equal respect. In many ways, this book is, for me, about suspending judgment. When you understand why someone acts the way they do, even if the actions cause sadness or difficulty, then I think you can redirect your energy to something more fruitful than judgment. I also hope the reader will have the kind of reading experience I think books are really about: a connection with the characters and a suspension of the loneliness of being human. I hope this story, like all good stories, might give the reader a kind of relief and a joy.

Now, I have taken to ending my reviews with additional links for interested readers. Well here is something really interesting: Bill Douglas, graphic designer, talking about his design for the cover of Annabel. I think Douglas did an incredible job of capturing the lonely, cold feeling in the book about Labrador. And I lovelovelove the hidden meaning behind the imagery chosen: “The caribou, you see, is the only member of the deer family in which both male and females grow antlers.”

Full disclosure: I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.