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by Kathleen Winter

A universal concern – the importance of self-determination – takes a highly specific form in Kathleen Winter’s first novel, the story of an intersex child born in a remote coastal Labrador village in 1968. Intersex births are considerably more common in real life than in fiction, and Montreal-based Winter has followed up her Metcalf-Rooke Award–winning short story collection BoYs with a thoughtful treatment of this rarely discussed topic. Despite a few plot and pacing stumbles, Annabel is a dramatic, thematically rich novel.

Intersex conditions arise when a person is born with atypical reproductive or sexual anatomy. The key concern of intersex advocates is whether infant bodies and genitalia should be surgically altered to match societal expectations. The long-term ramifications of such decisions form Annabel’s narrative backbone. Winter also considers the broader effect of gender constraints, particularly how these vary between smaller rural settlements and urban environments.

When Jacinta Blake gives birth in the bathtub of her house in the village of Croydon Harbour, her close friend Thomasina is the first to notice that the newborn possesses a combination of male and female parts. Thomasina begins to refer to the baby as Annabel, in tribute to her own lost daughter, who died along with her father in a boating accident. But Jacinta’s husband, Treadway, an outdoorsman and trapper, decides he wants to raise a male heir.

The child is christened Wayne and taken to Goose Bay General Hospital for an operation designed to render him more convincingly male. But the surgical alteration must be bolstered by expensive hormonal medications, the true purpose of which Wayne doesn’t learn until the onset of puberty. Experiencing a confusing identification with femininity from early boyhood, Wayne grows up an outsider, and eventually relocates to St. John’s, where he struggles to take greater control of his body and identity.

Winter’s skilful prose, rooted in a vivid sense of place, captures a particular historic moment. In tiny Croydon Harbour and the surrounding wilderness, “where caribou moss spreads in a white-green carpet,” both men and women are required to be resilient in order to survive, but their respective roles are clearly defined. The townspeople’s expectations are flouted when a boy resists acting in a masculine way, or when young people abandon their roots and strike out for the big city.

Winter employs details that are specific and effective, be they local culinary specialties, like partridgeberry loaf, or the artifacts of Wayne’s coming of age in the 1980s, such as his Spirograph toy or America’s Top 40 with radio host Casey Kasem. Winter captures the essence of childhood using simple but evocative references – one girl’s method of biting the peanuts off an Oh! Henry bar, for example, or the feel of sinking one’s teeth into a pencil.

The novel is thematically sophisticated, particularly in its exploration of travel and aging as ways of escaping social strictures. This is especially evident in Thomasina, who serves as a role model for young Wayne. Winter also examines the notion of colonization and its impact on land and people, starting with the historic arrival of European missionaries on the Labrador shore, and suggesting that Wayne’s body has been commandeered by medical authorities whose dictates have more to do with maintaining a gendered social order than with his own happiness and fulfillment. To her credit, Winter largely avoids using overt symbolism to depict Wayne’s condition, rightly realizing that to be born intersex is not an intrinsic embodiment of either dualism or ambiguity – an intersex person is simply a person.

That said, the story does feature a medical subplot that strives to operate as a metaphor for how Wayne’s identity transcends a single gender. This subplot strains credulity, and the novel would have been stronger without it. Most readers, even those knowledgeable about intersex conditions, will doubt whether what is described is even physically possible. Similarly, the main plot at times relies on perfect coincidences that may snap readers out of the otherwise effective spell that Winter has cast.

Another distraction recurs over the book’s four-hundred-plus pages. Whenever a significant confrontation occurs – for instance, when Wayne’s father criticizes Thomasina for hinting about Wayne’s gender differences – the reader is treated to a lengthy digression about what is going on in each character’s mind, an authorial strategy that tries the reader’s patience. There is only one instance in the book where this device works well – during a brutal physical assault – because here it creates a sense of disorientation and dissociation.

Despite certain distracting elements, Annabel is an impressive first novel. Wayne’s driving preoccupation – how to discover and inhabit a distinct identity while simultaneously finding a place in the world at large – affects his parents and peers in ways that Winter explores subtly and in depth. Although a number of loose narrative ends are tidied up in the novel’s closing chapters, the central question of Wayne’s future remains unanswered. But his inner journey mirrors that shared by many Canadians, whose identities arise out of a sense of home, and the process of leaving that home behind.