Thursday, 10 March 2011

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Hermaphrodites in literature seem to be far more a far more common occurrence than in life, but the opportunities that a character of both sexes gives a writer appear too good to pass up. One of my favourite novels is Middlesex, where Jeffrey Eugenides examines twentieth century America through the family of a child born with the genitalia of both a boy and a girl, but mistaken at birth for a girl. Kathleen Winter’s Annabel is a worthy addition to this canon.

In 1968, Wayne Blake is born in a remote part of Newfoundland, Canada, with the visible parts of both male and female. An arbitrary decision is made almost at once by his father, Treadway, who wants to bring up a son in the intensely male world of fur trapping. His medical past is kept a secret and Wayne is raised a boy after corrective surgery, although this second self, named Annabel, is secretly nurtured by his mother, Jacinta, and her best friend Thomasina.

As Wayne grows older his father becomes acutely aware that his son is not cut from the same uber-masculine cloth as himself. Wayne’s subconscious knowledge of Annabel is suppressed, but unfortunately, his changing body has other ideas. When Wayne falls ill at school, it’s Thomasina who takes him to hospital: Treadway is out working and Jacinta has taken a well deserved night off to have a drink with a couple of friends:

One difference between Eliza Goudie and Joan Martin was that when they were drinking with the women for the night, Eliza bought piña coladas from the liquor store and Joan brought over a bottle of her husband’s single malt Scotch. Eliza liked fizzing concoctions with pineapple and coconut flavouring and palm trees on the bottle, while Joan just liked to get quietly wrecked... Joan drank from the bottle. “This is on the peaty side of single malts. It was made in a cave. Some tiny cave in the north of Scotland, more remote than we are here. My husband picked it out because of the cave. My husband, the caveman.”

As Wayne is going under the knife in Goose Bay hospital, his mother is getting stuck into the plonk:

Jacinta had a bottle of Mateus that had been in the freezer for half an hour. She liked how frost steamed around the gold label, the fffftz and puff of fruity scent. If she was going to drink, Jacinta wanted fizz. She wanted Spain. She wanted celebration and the word rosé... The third glass of wine was for her the magic glass. At Christmas or an evening out with other families, she had two glasses. The third glass was the glass that floated her above. She did not have that glass as a rule, but this was not a night when the rule applied.

Like millions of others, Jacinta and her friends get sloshed and put the world to rights. Unfortunately, she’s just chosen the wrong night to do it. Treadway has now been summoned to hospital and stops off to get her. Jacinta’s too pickled to make the trip:

By the time Treadway knocked on Eliza Goudie’s door, Joan and Eliza had forgotten what a husband looked like. They had drunk so much that the sight of Treadway on the doorstep puzzled them. An alien creature had found its way to the house. Only Jacinta recognised him, and he knew, when he saw her, he did not want her to accompany him to the hospital in that state.

In a second arbitrary decision, Jacinta is kept ignorant of the unexpected complication of Wayne’s condition. She starts to fade out of his life as he finishes his journey into adulthood. Heartbreaking and beautiful, Annabel is not just about the binary choices that make us who we are, but is also a touching description of a way of life in the Canadian wilderness that is now in decline.

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