Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

I should explain why this review uses this cover, rather than the more common one with an androgynous youth on the cover. The answer is, in this case, simple - I try to use the covers that are on the physical copies I've read (with books off my friend's Kindle, I pick whatever I damn well choose), and this is how Annabel showed up at my local library branch for me to take out. It has relevance to the book, although less so than the cover that I've actually seen everywhere.

Nearing the end of the BBC's Big Read, I came across a CBC Canadian 100 - not voted on, but what the hell. I'd read 29 books on it, and wanted to read more. So, here we go! (The list as a whole does skew relatively recent.) So the first title (alphabetically) that I hadn't read was this one. Actually, maybe it was Alias Grace, I just forgot to write about the new project when I posted that review.

This came out in 2010, so it's one of the more recent. It's the story of Wayne, an intersex child who is raised as a boy, although without surgical intervention. (With hormones, though.) He grows up in Labrador, with his father intent on making sure he feels like a normal boy, and a mother who longs for the daughter she sees inside him.

This book has rich prose, is highly descriptive of Labrador and environs. At the same time, it's not prose that sweeps me off my feet and leaves me swooning. It didn't get under my skin or feel overdone, it just didn't enrich the story in the way truly poetic words can in the hands of a wordsmith. Here, it feels like Winter is trying hard, and succeeding in being competent, but not masterly.

Wayne grows to teenage years before he figures out what's going on, and then drifts for quite a while, trying to figure out who he is. (I'm using male identifiers because there's no sign of Wayne changing his pronouns, although he is exploring what his identity means after stopping taking male hormones. He toys with the idea of himself as Annabel, a name he was called as a child by a neighbour.)

Oddly, women drift away in the second half of the book. Wayne's mother retreats into her own world. Wayne still communicates with an old teacher, and wants to know an old female classmate. But the book itself becomes more and more male. To the point where, when he is attacked and sexually assaulted by someone who is aware of his nature (i.e., he is assaulted as a woman), he tells the teacher, and she phones his father, saying that it should be him that deals with it. It creates this very weird situation where being sexually assaulted as a female is seen as a men's issue.

I kept stopping, and thinking, what? I mean, really, what?  You don't think that maybe women, maybe his mother, maybe any other woman, might have some insights or support? No? It's just got to come from the men and be dealt with among men?

Perhaps my issues come from this because no one in this book is much for thinking. Or rather, we're told they are, but there's little evidence of it. No one thinks about what things mean, just what they are. It's chock full of very concrete thinkers, no analysis. Which may be part of what Winter is trying to do here, but it means we have a book full of atomized characters who not only make no effort to connect their experiences with anyone else's, no one even ever seems to be aware that other people might have similar experiences.

It just isn't how people share in this book. No one really shares themselves. They share what they've been doing, but never think about what they mean. Not really anyone, in the whole book. At the risk of being glib, Labradorans in this book could use some consciousness raising. And I mean that in the sense of sharing experiences and recognizing commonalities, realizing that the shit I've been dealing with is also sometimes the shit you've been dealing with, and maybe we aren't all alone all the time.

That is not this book. I hope Wayne figures out how to be Annabel as well. I hope he and Wally (school friend) manage to connect. I hope someone talks to someone about what they're feeling and thinking beyond the most surface of levels. I'm not sure I'm hopeful.

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