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Annabel by Kathleen Winter

‘Nothing I do with Economics is going to change what I am’ – Wayne (page 352)

In 1968, into the beautiful, spare environment of remote Croydon Harbour, a coastal village in Labrador in the far north-east of Canada, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy or girl, but both at once. Only three people share the secret – the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to go through surgery and raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows up within the hyper-male hunting culture of his father, his shadow shelf – a girl he thinks of as ‘Annabel’ – is never entirely extinguished, and indeed is secretly nurtured by the women in his life. As Wayne approaches adulthood, the duality of sexuality creates more confusion and dilemma as the woman inside him begins to cry out.

Soon Wayne will have to make a choice…..

The blurbs first captured me, along with other books of the same subject as “Middlesex” and “Orlando” I am intrigued with this one. Annabel is such a pretty name and the haunting cover of the book seems inept for such tender book. When I finished the book however I am grateful that the cover designer has chosen it, because the book is a tender and empathetic story of a boy born hermaphrodite and as haunting and disquiet as the severe and unforgiving land; with the quiet horror of events (and there are many) that happened in Wayne’s life.

Everything Treadway refused to imagine, Jacinta imagined in detail enough for two of them. Whereas he struck out on his own to decide how to erase the frightening ambiguity in their child, she envisioned living with it as it was. She imagined her daughter beautiful and grown up, in a scarlet satin gown, her male characteristics held secret under the clothing for a time when she might need a warrior’s strength and a man’s potent aggression. Then she imagined her son as a talented, mythical hunter, his breasts trapped in a concealing vest, his clothes the green of striding forward, his heart the heart of a woman who could secretly direct his path in the ways of intuition and psychological insight. Whenever she imagined her child, grown up without interference from a judgemental world, she imagined its male and female halves as complementing each other, and as being secretly, almost magically powerful. – page 28

I think within us there are characteristics of maleness and femaleness that guide the decisions we make in the course of  our lives. The most successful of us all are the ones who possess both and use either one of them when situation calls for. For example, when making a future decision, I tap on my intuition and emotion to select the choice that I am at peace with. When face with questioning and scrutiny, I employ my maleness and quiet aggression to put my thoughts and facts across and not cower under intimidation. Indeed, our male and female halves complement each other. The most successful male fashion designers, architects, hair stylists and chefs put this in good use and created some of the world’s outstanding talents in the fields.

There is something about Kathleen Winter’s writing style that I love.  She talks about the ordinary in a simple quirky way.

People will notice when a neighbour is not herself but for a long time they will not intervene. Time is so sneaky that one minute you are thinking you have not seen such and such a person for a few days, perhaps you should phone them, and the next time you think that thought, spring has come. – page 347

‘Loves gets blocked if you dam it. Your father builds dams in his sleep. He doesn’t know he’s doing it.’ Said Thomasina. Wayne had a dog he could not love though he wanted to love it, and Treadway had a son he could not love though he wanted a son and he wanted to love that son. Father and son suffered from backed up, frozen love, and this ate Jacinta’s heart. – page 239.

As much as I used to think some writers manage to give a sense of place about the story setting, I had never felt it as strongly as Kathleen Winter’s Labrador.

The US cover befits the milieu of the setting

The man works as trappers and spend month on ends in the wilderness conversing and attuned to the call of wilderness. The women manage their home, cook and clean and tend to their domestic duties. A vast land of Caribou and owls and wild animals and frozen landscape. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the book is not about cross-gender but it is as much about the New World, Labrador as it is for the locals who seek a way out from the sparse environment into the city. Into a different sort of wilderness. The wilderness of the city and its complications.

A traveller can come to Labrador and feel its magnetic energy or not feel it. There has to be a question in the person. The visitor has to be an open circuit, available to the power coming off the land and not everybody is. And it is the same with a person born in Labrador. Some know, from birth, that their homeland has a respiratory system, that it pulls energy from the cook and mountain and water and gravitational activity beyond earth, and that it breathes energy in return. And others don’t know it. (page 8 ) – the embodiment of the New World.

Labrador tea with the same scent grew undisturbed around the shore of that central lake in Labrador, the unnamed lake from which the rivers run both north and south. The same insects visited lethal pitcher plants and a sky looked down some might call it a merciless sky. And now and then in the pitchers water a cloud journeyed, and so did patterns of ducks on their spring flight. – page 461


I vacillate between giving this book a 4.5 or a 5 stars. As I have given Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times a 5-star on my previous post, it seems inane to give another. But this book deserves it. This book creates an appetite for me to read about dual sexuality. I am sure I would love books like Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides or Orlando by Virginia Woolf all the same, but Annabel, to me will be truly special in its own quirky and quiet way.

What I love most about the book: the sense of milieu, the elegance of prose, the characters, the contrast between the no-man’s land and the city. A heartrending read yet maintains an undercurrent of suspense and horror that occurs when least expected. The book is a wonderful introduction to a place on earth that I knew very little of.

What I like least about the book: Quite a few loose ends remain unresolved in the book. I am not sure if the bad guys paid for what they did? I am not sure if Treadway and Jacinta’s relationship was on the mend? I am not sure why ever since Thomasina (a trusted neighbour and a close friend of Jacinta) became a stranger to Jacinta after she went travelling around the world and came back to Labrador?

I am close to finishing 3 of the 6 Orange Prize shortlisted novels and any of them could win this year, but I pitch Annabel as my favourite to win.

Different though the sexes are, they inter-mix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.

Virginia Woolf

Other views: (did I miss yours? Let me know and I’ll include it).

Jackie @ Farmlane Book BlogAnnabel was compelling enough to draw me through to the end, but I was left unsatisfied by the novel as a whole. In comparison to the wonderful Middlesex this book was lacking depth and emotion.

Amy Reads: The whole story was heartbreaking and beautiful. That’s really the best I can do review wise   I hope you believe me and give the novel a try, if you get a chance!

Dovegrey reader scribble: And dear reader, be warned, your heart might break too and not just for Wayne but for Jacinta and Treadwell as well…….just occasionally I think I have to beg and grovel and say  ‘pleeeeeeeeeeeease don’t miss Annabel’ . It will be in my top reads of 2011 no matter how many good books follow.

Wise Monkey: The real gift of this book is the sense of place. The culture of the people of Labrador is shaped by the land and Winter writes this pressure into the characters so that one can feel this particular world’s power and unrelenting wildness. She uses flashback very sparingly (thank you!) and constructs a story, yes a story, that is deft, readable, and engaging.

Night Light Revue: For the more serious reader, however, it is of note that every single one of Winter’s characters is worthy of in-depth conversation and her vision of Labrador and its Inuit people fascinates. Annabel is a patient novel that requires a reader’s patience in kind to truly appreciate Winter’s intent.

Canadian Book Review: Kathleen Winter has created a completely original story with unique and deep characters while also joining a great tradition of CanLit protagonists finding their way through life, whether by design or accident I am not sure. Annabel is a great gift to the world of literature. I have no hesitation in saying that this novel is one of the best books of the 21st century in all of English literature, not just Canadian.

Winner of the 2010 Independent Literary Awards
Shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize
Shorlisted for the 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2010 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Shorlisted for the 2011 OLA Evergreen Award
Shorlisted for the 2010 Amazon.ca First Novel Award
Longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2011 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award
Quill & Quire Books of the Year ~ 2010
Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2010
Amazon.ca Best Books of the Year ~ 2010
Vancouver Sun Top 10 Canadian Books of the Year ~ 2010
New York Times Editors’ Choice ~ 2011

HardbackPublisherJonathan Cape 2011Length461 pages ; Setting:  1968 till present day Labrador, Canada.  Source: Reading Battle Library LootFinished reading at: 28 May 2010.

About the writer:

Kathleen Winter (born February 25, 1960) is a Canadian short story writer and novelist.

Born in Bill Quay, near Gateshead in the north of England and raised in Newfoundland and Labrador, Winter began her career as a script writer for Sesame Street before becoming a columnist for The Telegram in St. John’s. Her debut short story collection, boYs, was published in 2007 and won that year’s Winterset Award and Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her novel Annabel was published in 2010, and was a shortlisted nominee for the Scotiabank Giller Prize,[4] the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the 2010 Governor General’s Awards. It held the distinction of being the only novel to make all three awards’ 2010 shortlists. Her novel Annabel has been shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in Montreal with her Québecois husband.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


11 thoughts on “Annabel by Kathleen Winter

  1. I like it that you explain about the nature/environment and sense of place. I love stories set in nature and this sounds great! I had read reviews about this book but they didn’t mention it (or I missed it somehow). I’m going to put it on my wishlist after all!

    Posted by Leeswammes | May 31, 2011, 6:39 am
  2. Thank you so much for such a generous, thoughtful review.

    Posted by Kathleen Winter | May 31, 2011, 5:52 pm
  3. Wonderful review, Jo! This looks like a really wonderful book! I am adding it to my ‘TBR’ list. Both the covers of the book are beautiful and the first one is really haunting. Your observation about how the male and female elements of every human being work at different times made me remember one of my favourite lines on the subject – that gender is a continuum and not a binary. Thanks for this wonderful review 🙂

    Posted by Vishy | June 1, 2011, 7:02 am
  4. This one is on my “to-read” list. I agree, the cover is haunting yet somehow it draws me in too. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. That means, I probably will too.

    Posted by Ti | June 1, 2011, 4:38 pm
  5. I bought this one a couple of weeks back, and meant to read it sooner but that just has not happened. I’m glad that you loved it so much. I haven’t read Middlesex or Orlando yet, but on my TBR, they are!

    Posted by Aths | June 4, 2011, 7:26 pm
    • Aths,
      I have a feeling you will love it. I have always read books after they win a prize, never before. This is the first time I attempt to read the book before the Orange Prize announcement and I find it is quite a nice experience to be able to in the judges shoes and gauge which one should win! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | June 4, 2011, 8:08 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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