Annabel by Kathleen Winter

An undeniably moving and emotive story, but what did a pack of hungry book grouper’s think?

After reading Annabel, a book I’ve being desperate to read all year, I’m pleased to report back my reaction and that of my lovely friends from book group.

But first let me tell you about the book.

The story is set in 1968 in a remote and distant part of Canada opening up with a fatal accident and moving onto the birth of a baby whose is born in short with both a penis, one testicle, a vagina and a womb. The baby’s mother and her close friend Thomasina instantly recognize that something is not quite as it should be, however they keep this knowledge secret.

But the secret has not being kept as well as they thought and when the baby’s father reveals that he knows of his childs dual sexuality he also declares that a decision must be made.

A practical and taciturn man Treadway is innately provident and made more so by the harsh land in which he lives, Treadway strives for a solution that is the most reasonable and favourable to the babies survival. He decides that he must be raised a boy and undergo surgery to remove any trace of his female self.

But the question that plagues the story throughout is whether or not a person born both male and female can ever truly deny or ignore one side of their sexuality? Can Wayne, despite his surgery, really ignore the female self that he feels trapped within him?

Indeed Wayne is unaware that he was ever born as anything more than a boy, it is his father’s decision but it is a testament to environment in which the characters live that such secrecy is chosen in favour of honesty. It is deemed more practical that Wayne should never be aware of his indefinite gender.

The answer, not too surprisingly, is that Wayne can no more deny his female self than he can shun or disregard his male identity. As such the story is at times painful to digest, heart breaking to comprehend and deeply moving. As the novel progresses so does Wayne’s own understanding of his mysterious birth, as light comes to be shed on his secret his own sense of self and identity seems to become more shrouded in ambiguity.

Yet perhaps what is most remarkable is not the unusual and daring subject matter but moreover the skill and beauty with which Winter tells her story. Rarely does a writer poses such talent in creating such a vivid and transporting image of a land as Winter does in this novel. After only a few pages I was lost within her world and got a feel, taste and image of the wintry, bleak and harsh land of this Canadian hamlet.

Just as the land is reticent and quiet such are it’s inhabitant’s and their ways of life, of survival and living. Treadway in particular is one such character that seems to harmoniously connect with his land. Living practically and in unison with the natural world. The image build and created of this land and it’s people is unique, it is inspiring and for me it is much of what lends charm and beauty to the novel.

BOOK GROUPS THOUGHTS….AND A FEW PLOT SPOILER’S

But what did myself and the book grouper’s think?…

Well for me personally I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it, but I did experience fluctuating pleasure in the reading experience. To begin with I was totally blown away. From the beginning descriptions and the atmosphere that was created I felt stunned and overwhelmed by Winter’s talent. The story engaged me and I was already declaring It to be my favourite book of 2011.

But then things started to dip a little and certainly towards the end I felt the grip of awe that Winter had enthralled in me began to wane. The chagrin that fuelled the first two parts began to wear off and I now doubt that she possessed the same skill and writing power towards the end of the novel that she had in the first two half’s.

Most of the book group seemed to feel the same and agreed that instead of the plot evolving it stayed very much the same, to the novels detriment. The themes and ideas of the novel seemed to become stagnant towards the end, as interesting as Wayne’s situation was by 400 pages we were all quite ready for the novel to either finish or pick up pace or even change direction. Dave and Sammy Dee both seemed to have similar feelings to me on this point and we all agreed that the ending was too inconclusive.

Yes we know that Wayne went to college and found the ambiguous identity and sexuality of his classmates refreshing and powerful in terms of his own identity, but what else happened to Wayne? Did he ever speak to his mother again? Did he get a girlfriend or a boyfriend?

It seemed to me that his own path in life and sense of self was always meant and going to be indistinct and therefore the ending was purposefully inconclusive. Yet we all felt that a more solid and polished ending would have been apt and it’s a shame that no one in the book group, myself included, found that ending satisfactory. The book has been well received though so certainly there are people out there who were unperturbed by the ending.

Holly felt the book was quite standard and didn’t shock her or break her reading boundaries, this is quite a surprising reaction given the books subject matter but it seems to be a reaction mirrored by other readers. I’m sure that Winter was aware that her subtle writing style and hazy ending wouldn’t please everyone and I must say good on her for writing in her own style anyway.

I would personally recommend the book although I know many others wouldn’t. It’s too hard to say who would and wouldn’t enjoy this story and therefore I think it’s better just to read it.

It certainly has lots to offer and like Dave said it is beautifully written. I certainly felt the emotional pull towards Wayne and felt that the first half of the story at least inspired empathy for his suffering. This is a debut novel and perhaps isn’t as refined as a second or third novel. But still a wonderful read for me.

So what did everyone else think? Did you enjoy this book? Book grouper’s still have the same feelings towards it or have your feelings changed? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

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2 thoughts on “Annabel by Kathleen Winter

  1. I enjoyed the book and I’m glad I read it but I can’t think of a single person I’d recommend it to. I, like you, had eagerly wanted to read it all year. It was beautifully written and I enjoyed it up until the last section.

    Warning: SPOILERS!!! LOTS OF SPOILERS! STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED IT!

    It’s all very well that the author indicated that Wayne went to college and felt as though he fitted in but it skips over the all the details we want to know. We’d followed his life thus far with great sympathy and empathy but then we’re cut off for the few vital years.

    Wayne’s outward appearance fits in but do the people in his new life accept his duel identity and sexuality? Does he even tell his new friends after what happened the first time?

    I wanted to read about that part of his journey: his new friends, his new relationships. Lou wanted to know whether he ever speaks to his mother again but I want to know what happened to her. Does she recover from her breakdown? Winter wrote about Treadway’s loyalty and that he would never leave his wife but did their marriage improve after she stopped lying to Wayne?

    I enjoyed the book but I feel Winter chickened out by leaving the intervening years to the imagination of the reader. I feel cheated by the ambiguous ending. It’s almost as though Winter was afraid she couldn’t deliver so decided to not even try. Harsh? Yes, absolutely.

    If in a few years (or a decade) Winter decided to revisit Annabel and write a follow up on the intervening years, would you want to read it? It would be an entirely differently paced book. What do you think?

  2. WARNING PLOT SPOLIERS….

    I loved reading your thoughts Sammy Dee, thanks for giving such detailed feedback. I completely agree, we followed him on a intimate journey through years of his life and yet we know nothing concrete about the second chapter of his life.

    It would be like knowing someone for twenty years and then when they were on the cusp of a new beginning suddenly never seeing or hearing from them again. Did they marry, have kids? You’d want to know.

    Why she didn’t continue the journey I don’t know, I’m not sure I would say she was afraid to venture in that direction, perhaps she thought the story sufficient. But it didn’t feel sufficient for me at all.

    I too wanted to know a lot more about his mother, there was potential there for a far more interesting and engaging character in my opinion.

    I would definitely read a revisit and I’d like to think she would write in exactly the same way as she did in the first two half’s. The same beautiful and brilliant writing but with more thought out, insightful and satisfactory insight like we got in the beginning. The ending felt harried so a revisit from Winter could be a winner.

    Would you bother reading it if she did? And what would you want from it? Great idea by the way, thanks for putting it out there 🙂

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