The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Reviewed by Amanda Ruffini

Kathleen Winter

Annabel. House of Anansi, 2011.

461 pp.

$19.95

Annabel is a coming-of-age narrative about the challenges of being intersex. In 1970s-80s Labrador, Canada, the protagonist, Wayne, is born with a secret his parents, Treadway and Jacinta, are too afraid to accept. Although the decision to choose Wayne’s sex is difficult, “It never once occurred to Treadway […] 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” (27). Thus, they do the only logical thing they can think of: they choose Wayne’s sex for him as an infant and have a surgeon construct more definable male genitals.

Wayne is raised as a boy and given hormones, which he believes are for a rare blood condition, to ensure he continues developing as such. While Wayne’s intersexual identity is not always the immediate discussion within the novel, it maintains an active presence in the background. Wayne’s parents observe him for signs of either female or male sexuality, and once Wayne learns the truth about his body, he constantly wonders if he ought to be one sex or the other. It is not until the end of the novel that he chooses to exist as both Wayne and Annabel.

The novel centers on Wayne’s secret and the fear of anyone finding out his true identity—that Annabel also exists within him. This secret prevents Wayne and his parents from ever becoming too close to anyone. The secret that originally holds his family close eventually begins to tear them apart as Wayne grows older. Interestingly, as Wayne and his parents grow further apart, readers are similarly pushed away from the narrative.

While we receive insight into the characters’ emotional and psychological states, we are given this information from a distance. Characters’ psychologies are divulged through minute details of landscape, nature, and individual habits, for example: “Wayne tried to see out the window. It had been made for adults to look out of. It had been made to shed light on this corridor from a height. The light cascaded and made you feel like you were about to realize something” (210). The light shining into the corridor allegorically foreshadows that Wayne is going to learn the truth about his physiology. He knows something is wrong, but until his meeting with his childhood doctor, Wayne cannot conceive of the magnitude of what he is about to hear.

Annabel maintains a level of narrative distance between the characters and audience, almost as if the reader is about to follow Wayne through a self-realization which he instead decides to keep to himself. Thus, Winter is constantly holding the reader at bay. The close attention to detail within the novel does not make it easier to sympathize with the characters – instead, it further alienates the reader since Wayne’s and his family’s situation is extremely exclusive. The reader’s hindered ability to sympathize with Wayne may also be because Wayne does not sympathize with any other character either. While the reader may be privy to his conversations, they often feel one sided, hollow and monotonous. For example, not until the end of the novel does he begin to sympathize with his father and work to repair their fractured relationship. In turn, his father begins accepting Annabel as his daughter as much as he loves and accepts Wayne as his son.

After Wayne stops taking his hormone therapy drugs and begins developing female traits such as a slimmer figure and breasts, some people around him begin scrutinizing him. Although Treadway is concerned, he accepts that the wellbeing of his child is more important than Wayne’s appearance: “It was the first mention Treadway made of why he had really come: the misery and sadness of his son. He had not said anything about Wayne’s appearance but he had taken it in, and he did not appear to be shocked or upset by it. Wayne had always appeared more graceful than other boys as far as Treadway was concerned” (432).

Winter’s novel is a dramatic tale of self-love, understanding, and acceptance. The narrator plays a crucial role in bringing awareness to these ideas throughout the novel. The narrative is never explicitly interrupted by the narrator’s interjections, but there is a heightened awareness that we are being told a personal story, and sometimes it is not clear where the shift from first- to third-person narration happens. While the novel begins in third-person, the narrative voice shifts back and forth once Wayne is old enough to provide his own insights.

The narrator provides what Wayne is either not ready to divulge, or has not yet realized for himself. This strategy further establishes Wayne as a closed, inexpressive, and misunderstood individual. While this strategy may become frustrating at times as we encourage Wayne to open up to someone, it similarly propels the reader deeper into the novel with the hope that Winter will eventually give Wayne a happy ending. Thus, with the narrator’s assistance, the reader can follow Wayne along his journey into self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Amanda Ruffini completed her Masters in English Literature at Concordia University. Her research interests include children’s literature such as Harry Potter, fairy tales, fantasy and satire. Her thesis explored the presence of national discourse within the Harry Potter series and evaluated the ways in which it contributed to the allure of fantasy in the 21st century.

 

 

 

 

 

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