Kathleen Winter
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Buy *Annabel* by Kathleen Winter online

Kathleen Winter
Grove Press/Black Cat
480 pages
January 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Human sexuality is vibrant, fluid and often perplexing. It shifts and changes, lighting up parts of our hearts and aligning itself with history and time. Those who are perceived as sexually different are often locked in a silent struggle well beyond social conventions. In Croyden Harbour, Labrador, a hermaphrodite is born to Treadway and Jacinta Blake. The couple find themselves nurturing differing expectations in order to ensure that their child is given a safe and comfortable life.

Amid magnetic energy and the vibrant pulsations of Labrador’s Northern Lights, Jacinta gives birth. As the newborn baby glitters, friend and midwife Thomasina Baikie catches sight of something slight and flower-like. Secretly naming the baby Annabel after her dead daughter, Thomasina notices that only one testicle has descended and a labia and vagina exist where there should be a penis.

In an instant, a door is opened to life or death. Days after the birth, the baby is named Wayne, and at first Treadway is not told the truth about his child. The self-contained Jacinta, ever pining for her life in St. John’s, blithely submits herself to the wisdom of her husband. Treadway never speaks of the issue, and no one in Croydon Harbour knows the truth. Treadway, Jacinta and Thomasina make a silent pact to love Wayne exactly as he was born: “Everything will become clear, the baby will be fine.”

When Wayne turns nine, Jacinta aches to explain his birth as her inner world spins out of control. She begins to grow reclusive and introverted, becoming separate from Treadway, who finds solace in the wilderness, standing against his son out of fear. Wayne blossoms, his authentic self enthralled by the beauty of the world. He also shows a school boy’s gift for geometry, curlicues, and elaborate bilaterally symmetrical shapes. For Wayne, Croydon Harbour and everything in it symbolizes “a curious division between haven and exposure.”

Writing with natural rhythm and impregnating her novel with great compassion, Winter speaks of a family blindsided by their unique situation and frightened by an unsophisticated world defined by closeted sexual mores. In the landscape of Labrador, closeness and alienation exist as one. The promises of love and approval are ultimately tinged with disappointment when Wayne’s feelings for his father clash with Treadway's cold precision.

Wayne’s crush on the divinely freckled Wally Michelin, a fellow classmate at Croydon Harbour Elementary, adds flavor, and their quirky relationship becomes an integral part of Wayne’s journey. Flush with life and possibility, Wayne - ethereal and otherworldly - becomes obsessed with synchronized swimming and the arching, interlacing bridges on Thomasina’s hastily written postcards sent from the great cities of Europe.

Maneuvering Treadway and Jacinta’s fracturing marriage to include the growth of their mysterious girl/boy to the medical establishment and its bloody gynecological interventions, Winter’s poignant book conveys a swirling, half-formed red world in which the seductive map of Wayne’s feminine parts similarly thrills and scares him. Winter spins her difficult subject with great beauty as Wayne, the "frozen man," transforms into the "girl-self” both emotionally and physically, finally allowing the beautiful Annabel to burgeon and shine.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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