Annabel by Kathleen Winter. House of Anansi Press 2010.

Annabel is a gentle novel that moves along like a quiet stream, only occasionally disturbed by rocks or riffles. I was a bit surprised by this, as Annabel is the story of a hermaphrodite. I was expecting angst, nature versus nurture, Freudian drama perhaps, but it’s barely present.

In 1968, Jacinta Blake gives birth to a child in a small, isolated coastal town outside Goose Bay, Labrador. The baby is healthy and well, except for one thing. It bears the genitalia of both a boy and a girl. While Jacinta might yearn for a daughter, the baby’s father makes the decision that the child will be raised as a boy, and names him Wayne. Accordingly, baby Wayne receives surgical intervention so that he may appear as ‘normal’ as possible. Besides his two parents, only Thomasina knows the truth about Wayne, as she was present at his birth. Jacinta feels that she has lost a daughter. Thomasina herself is bereft of a daughter, Annabel, who has drowned. Thomasina remembers her daughter in Wayne, whispering Annabel’s name in his tiny ear.

Wayne is unaware of the secret of his birth. He believes the medications he must take are for a blood condition. His father denies Wayne’s hidden self and pushes Wayne to be like other boys, breaking up his friendship with his soulmate Wally (named after Wallace Simpson). Wally herself has a broken dream. She wants to be a singer, but her vocal cords are injured in an accident caused by a malicious classmate. As he reaches adolescence, Wayne finally learns of his “inner Annabel”.

It’s a wonder that Wayne grows up as normal a young person as he does, quite apart from his condition. His father is taciturn and reclusive, while his mother retreats within herself. After Wayne leaves home for the big city of St. John’s, he makes the decision to go off his medications and thus discover his true nature.

Sexual identity has been at the centre of several recent books. One is Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, a family saga that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. A second is As Nature Made Him, the nonfiction story, by John Colapinto, of a boy who was raised as a girl after a botched circumcision. If you are interested in an investigation into hermaphrodites (the word “intersex” has come into preferred usage for humans) or gender identity, one of those titles might be a better choice than Annabel.

However, as a sensitive exploration of family and self-discovery, Annabel is a satisfying story. Annabel is a coming-of-age story, a story about finding your own true self. Other threads that are woven into the narrative look at grief and travel as vehicles of personal growth, and both the beauties of and compromises required by life in a remote community. Annabel was short-listed for both the Giller Prize and the Governor-General Awards.

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