It's not often that one reads a story about a hermaphrodite. I, in fact, have read two stories about hermaphrodites. I talked about reading Middlesex here. The similarity between Middlesex and Annabel stops there. Middlesex is an epic, sprawling novel that is sometimes a bit campy. In Middlesex no one knew Cal was a hermaphrodite (though there was always something a bit odd about her/him that people couldn't put their finger on). I quite enjoyed it for the most part but honestly, it's nothing compared to Kathleen Winter's beautiful story.
A hermaphrodite is born to parents Jacinta and Treadway in remote Labrador. No one knows except them, a close family friend Thomasina and of course the doctors. The decision is made by Treadway to go with a male "course of action" including surgery and a battery of medication and the name Wayne in order to define the child. In private, Jacinta and Thomasina nurture the female side of Wayne with Thomasina going so far as to call him Annabel after her own daughter who dies in a tragic drowning accident.
What ensues is a beautifully told story of not just a child growing and struggling with identity but a family too. Set against the harsh background of Labrador, where life on the surface does not necessarily reflect what's going on behind closed doors, the story of Wayne/Annabel becomes almost a microcosm of the community.
Even when Wayne's feminine side is clearly dominant (despite hormones and physical alterations to make him more male) Treadway pointedly ignores those signs, insisting on continuing to try and instill traditional male virtues. Jacinta, on the other hand, clearly suffering from guilt from not trusting her initial maternal instincts, secretly indulges Wayne's femininity (including allowing him to order a girl's bathing suit after he fell in love with synchronize swimming).
It all comes crumbling down around the family when Wayne, after requiring emergency medical care, discovers what he is. This then starts the path for him to discover who he is; he stops his medication so that the female side can naturally come forth. His journey and life in St. John's is heartbreaking as he tries to finally get comfortable in his skin while facing the ultimate cruelty and violation.
Winter has a beautiful way with language. I love the way she weaves Thomasina in and out of the story as a major influence and confidant for Wayne as well as a harsh voice of reason for Treadway. I would have liked to see more of Jacinta and Wayne interact after he chooses the female side. Her descent into mental illness was so sad and I thought it was cruel of Winter to do that to Jacinta. The descriptions of Labrador are vivid and lovely.
I confess I enjoyed Annabel much more than The Sentimentalists. Without having read the other two nominees for the 2010 Giller, Annabel would have had my vote hands down. Can't wait to read whatever Kathleen Winter has coming up next.