Sometimes the only way you can describe the effect that a book has on you is to say you were bowled over and that is exactly how I felt when I had turned the last page of ‘Annabel’ the debut novel by Kathleen Winter. I was hoping that it might be something quite special when I first saw it on this years Orange Prize Longlist. I then went off and looked at some reviews and it seemed that on the whole people had loved it. Initially I planned to save it until later on in my Orange reading but after changing my approach to the list I picked this one up next and to sum it up in a word I found it incredible, so much so I have lots and lots to say about it.
I have to admit from reading the prologue of ‘Annabel’ I wasn’t sure that this would be the book for me. It’s a short and rather final encounter between a young girl called Annabel and her blind father as they take a canoe ride to see white caribou in the Canadian wilderness. This proves to be their final outing together and is told in a rather dreamy and magical realist way. Interestingly it’s not reflective of the rest of the book, and yet in its way it has a pivotal place in the rest of the book.
As the book itself opens proper we join Jacinta Blake in the final painful moments of giving birth surrounded by the many of the women of the small town of Croydon Harbour in the Canadian region of Labrador in 1968. Once the child, named Wayne, is born it is local women Thomasina Baikie that notices something different about the child. Wayne has been born with both sexes genitalia, he is there for a hermaphrodite, or ‘intersex’ as I believe the term is now preferred.
“Thomasina hooked a plug of slime out of the baby’s mouth with her pinky, slicked her big hand over face, belly, buttocks like butter over one of her hot loaves, and slipped the baby back to its mother. It was as the baby latched on to Jacinta’s breast that Thomasina caught sight of something slight, flower-like; one testicle had not descended, but there was something else. She waited the eternal instant that women wait when a horror jumps out at them. It is an instant that men do not use for waiting, an instant that opens a door to life and death.”
From the moment Thomasina tells Jacinta, who up until that point has been her best friend something which then is occasionally tested, a secret is born but one that the baby’s father Treadway isn’t as oblivious to as the women might think. Treadway is a silent man who disappears into the woodland and wilderness for half the year to earn his families keep, a man who talks to nature and through nature learns more than people would give him credit for – this brings occasional moments of magical realism throughout the book as it goes forward. He knows his child is of two worlds, a woman’s and a man’s, he also believes that a decision must me made one way or the other. However life is never that black and white nor is it that easy.
From here we follow how this all changes the lives of the three main people at Wayne’s birth. Treadway and how he forces his fatherly role on Wayne, and Wayne taking part always wanting his fathers approval which he feels he never quite gets, thinking its for the best (there is one sequence of events involving a childrens den which almost made me cry in frustration). Thomasina as she struggles to go along with Wayne’s parents decision and then how she deals with grief after her family die tragically. Jacinta as she copes with the fact that once the decision is made she gains a son but also looses a daughter, something that is wonderfully brought to life when she goes to one of her friends Eliza’s houses (we also see here what a wonderful job Kathleen Winter does of fleshing out some of the smaller characters in a paragraph) for a sociable lunch.
“No matter how outrageous Eliza’s reasoning, Jacinta had tried to understand it. Even now Jacinta did not argue about the Valium, though she felt Eliza’s new outlook was chemically induced illusion. This is my problem, Jacinta thought. I am dishonest. I never tell the truth about anything important. And as a result, there is an ocean inside me of unexpressed truth. My face is a mask, and I have murdered my own daughter.”
You might all be wondering about Wayne Blake, do we not follow him too? Yes of course we do from his first few years and into his childhood. During this time though we see how he, unaware of the female half of him, is rather different from all the other children of both sexes but through the eyes of his parents and Thomasina. Its not until he gets older and how naturally his other self, who he addresses as Annabel as Thomasina does after the death of her daughter (see the beginning does bear a huge relevance), starts to show herself in the smallest of ways. It is as he learns the truth, in a rather shocking sequence of events, that we see things through his eyes and his narrative, through the third person, in the second half of the book.
“Where did she go? She was in his body but she escaped him. Maybe she gets out through my eyes, he thought, when I open them. Or my ears. He lay in bed and waited. Annabel was close enough to touch; she was himself, yet unattainable.”
I don’t think I have read a book that uses the third person in such a way that you see every person’s viewpoint so vividly. Every character, no matter how small a part they play, springs to life walking straight off the page and I honestly felt I was living in Croydon Harbour (atmosphere and descriptions are pitch perfect), whilst also being shocked that such a palce still exists in modern times, and went along with Wayne’s journey every step of the way. It is incredible to think that ‘Annabel’ is Kathleen Winter’s debut novel; I was utterly blown away by it and will be urging everyone I know to rush out and read this book. It is just superb and possibly my favourite read of the year so far. 10/10
This book was kindly sent by the publisher.
I don’t think I can say anymore than that really. I just loved it. I am wondering if, as well as hoping it makes the Orange shortlist, it will be eligible for this years Booker Prize? Regardless of that, I am hoping that lots of other people will read it, if they haven’t already, as I am busting to discuss it to death. Has anyone else given this a whirl?