Books, Quotes, Reading Events

Book 151: Annabel – Kathleen Winter

This is definitely one of the top three most beautiful books I have read this year. Not only is it well written, but it is well researched and really makes you think without making you struggle to do so. As I haven’t read any of the award winners for which this book was nominated, I can’t say my theory holds that the nominees are generally better than the winners, but that’s still my gut response.

Not that you would want to, because the book is fairly deceptively complicated, but if you had to sum it up in one line it would be the following:

“Sometimes you had to be who you were and endure what happened to you, and to you alone, before you could understand the first thing about it.” (67)

This is definitely one of the themes of the book, along with acceptance and surviving and any other number of things. And it doesn’t just have to do with Wayne/Annabel, but with Thomasina, Wally, Jacinta, and Treadway. And any of the other countless people who lived in Croydon Harbor and are survivors.

What I found most beautiful from the novel, aside from Annabel’s story, was Treadway’s character and the way Winter wrote it. There was something about Treaday and his animal ability that not only portrayed his character, but also my idea of what Canada is like. The strong silence and inflexibility of Treadway and the open swaths and tall rich forests of Canada were synonymous. Although he probably had fewer than 15 pages dialogue (I feel like that’s a lot even), his impact was exponentially greater, especially with the ending.

I also felt that Treadway’s acceptance of Wayne/Annabel at the end of the novel and the actions he contemplates are indescribably awe inspiring. It goes back to the first quote in the additional quotes below, but Treadway’s quiet acceptance of a decision just makes you think there has to be hope out there for all sorts of charged social issues.

Literary Others Synthesis
What I found most striking about the book was that Winter did her research on individuals born intersex/hermaphroditic. As the birth was happening and the descriptions of the baby occurred, I wondered if she would mention the phalometer. This is real. This is what doctors STILL use today to determine whether an intersex child is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’, and then they assign physical sex characteristics and thus a gender with which to raise the child. I remember first reading about this during my MA degree and found it incredibly difficult to comprehend.

I mean I understood why this occurs socially: making it easier for the child to exist in a predominantly binary gendered world, giving the parents peace of mind, etc. But it bothers me medically, that it’s so arbitrary. Like saying, oh here’s a number if it’s bigger it’s a penis, if it’s smaller it’s a clitoris and then make a life altering decision for a child that affects everything about its future. Sure, you can argue that the decision is made for the child’s benefit, but we all need to accept the decision is for the parents benefit, so they don’t have to answer questions awkwardly, so they can march forward in the hetero-patriarchal world and say, this is my daughter or son and they’ll get married one day to the opposite sex/gender.

But aside from this and Treadway’s character, I believe the best thing about the novel was Wayne/Annabel’s walking the line between male and female. The following quote really stood out to me as beautiful and incredibly thoughtful.

“The street smelled of cigarettes, perfume, and coffee, and Wayne saw that the faces, bodies, clothes, and shoes of the men and women who passed him had been divided and thinned. The male or female in them had been both diluted and exaggerated. They were one, extremely so, or they were the other. The women trailed tapered gloves behind them and walked in ludicrous heels, while the men, with their fuzzy sideburns and brown briefcases, looked boring as little beagles out for the same rabbit. You define a tree and you do not see what it is; it becomes its name. It is the same with woman and man. Everywhere Wayne looked there was one or the other, male or female, abandoned by the other. The loneliness of this cracked the street in half. Could the two halves of the street bear to see Wayne walk the fissure and not name him a beast?” (350)

It not only speaks to the struggle/identity within Wayne/Annabel, but speaks to every person and the ancient idea(l)s of duality and everyone having duality within them (good/evil and male/female among others). Yes, I do think this raises some issues with socially constructed binaries, but at the same time it’s almost something ancient, animal, primordial which is intriguing.

Recommendation: Although it took me reading the prologue and first few pages of chapter one a couple of times to sort out my confusion, the book is an easy enough read. EVERYONE should read this novel. It’s a beautiful novel and set in a starkly beautiful place. I also think it’s important that people read it, because it isn’t something most people would need to deal with or even know they were interacting with someone like this on a day-to-day basis. It helps open your eyes and mind to new ideas and concepts that many people don’t even consider.

Opening Line: “‘Papa!’ The blind man in the canoe is dreaming.”

Closing Line: “Treadway was a man of Labrador, but his son had left home as daughters and sons do, to seek freedom their fathers do not need to inhabit, for it inhabits the fathers.” (Whited out.)

Additional Quotes from Annabel
“It never once occurred to Treadway to do the thing that lay in the hearts of Jacinta and Thomasina: to let his baby live the way it had been born. That, in his mind, would not have been a decision. It would have been indecision, and it would have caused harm. He did not want to imagine the harm it would cause. He was not an imagining man. He saw deeply into things but he had no desire to entertain possibility that had not yet manifested. He wanted to know what was, not what might be. So he refused to imagine the harm in store for a child who was neither a son nor a daughter but both.” (27)

“Boston in those days was where a lot of people went. There was excitement connected with the place. If you went there you would be in America, but it was the elegant and sedate part of America. So it was a place of new beginnings but it was not like the Wild West. If you went to Boston, the people back home in St. Anthony or Croydon Harbor knew you were serious about your future.” (286)

“He wished at that moment that his whole life had not been a secret, that lots of people were like him, instead of his being alone in a world where everyone was secure in their place as either woman or man. His aloneness was what made him feel ashamed, and he did not know why it had to be so.” (414)

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22 thoughts on “Book 151: Annabel – Kathleen Winter”

  1. Oh, man – this book has been on my pile since its pre-publication. I really, really want to read it! I had hoped to do so for the event, but there just hasn’t been time. Now I see these great reviews about it (so glad that many of you are choosing it for the event!) and I’m getting very envious. I hope I can get to it during winter break!

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  2. I loved Annabel! Although I think the cover is creepy and misleading, this is one of those for-real “don’t judge a book by its cover.” I could not put this book down, and I was so interested in finding out what was going to happen with this gender situation!

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    1. That’s funny – I actually really liked the cover, at least on my version. I didn’t like the cover with the white deer. The cover is actually what drew me to it – the androgyny and the wait that says Annabel, isn’t that a boy?

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      1. I understand what you’re saying. . . but I think the cover (the one that is shown here on the review) is creepy. Maybe it’s me as a female reader, because I didn’t look for creepy. But I read a few sentence synopsis that was intriguing which kept me interested enough after seeing the cover to read the book.

        Maybe it’s just preferences. I didn’t want a creepy book, and that’s the feeling that the cover gave me, but not the inside of the book.

        I like this conversation because I usually don’t care about the covers!

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        1. That is interesting. I’ve always been fascinated by androgyny so I guess that’s why I didn’t find it creepy or odd 😀 I’ve seen a lot of people writing about covers recently and I’m definitely guilty of buying books because of their cover art. I mean the cover is the first chance to drag a buyer in.

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          1. I don’t find androgyny itself creepy or odd. The topic is not the issue for me in the least.

            The cover to me looks like a cheesy horror novel, which is sooooo not what I read. That’s where I had the issue with the cover. I felt like the cover was creepy and weird, but the book covered the topics in a non-creepy way.

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  3. WONDERFUL review.

    The phalometer bothers me to no end, because it’s not just physical characteristics (or the way one nurtures a child) that determines a person’s sexuality. And of course, there can be no psychological testing on a baby. What an unfair way for doctors/parents to determine the sexuality of that individual for them. Sigh.

    This book is easily in my top ten for the year. Holy emotional rollercoaster and fantastic writing.

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    1. Thanks! And as I said I was bothered by it, but it was worse reading about it during my studies because it was so much drier and medical. I felt that Winter did an amazing job walking the line between sterilized medical language and the emotional language Jacinta used/thought in.

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  4. What a beautiful review, Geoff! I read Annabel too, as part of the LGBT Reading Event and I loved it as much as you did. I really thought the book was beautiful. 🙂 It’s so good to know that you loved it too and I cannot agree more with your thoughts. Also, the last quote you’ve shared, I remember highlighting that one too. It would be great if you took a look at my review. Happy reading!

    Sarika @ The Readdicts

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    1. I definitely recommend it! It’s amazing how much the landscape of a country can be evoked by the personalities of characters. (Or at least my imagination of the landscape.) Not to mention the way she actually wrote the characters!

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  5. Excellent review. And it sounds like a wonderful book. I’ve never heard of the phalometer, but that sounds like a terrible way to decide what gender to raise a child.

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    1. I don’t think most people have heard of one. I just happened to read an article about it during my studies as part of a course on theorizing gender and we learned about it.

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