One of my friends is writing her research project on ‘Annabel’ and ‘The Wasp Factory’ so when I spotted this novel in the library I decided to take it out. I have previously read ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, which I thought was really good (would definitely recommend!), so I was interested to see how another author would approach the subject of inter-sexuality.
‘Annabel’ is set in remote Labrador in Canada and it is the story of Wayne, a child born with both male and female genitalia. Only his (?) parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a family friend, Thomasina, are aware of this but his father decides that the child should be brought up as a boy and so he undergoes surgery and hormone therapy to ensure his development into a boy. Treadway is always desperate for Wayne to be a ‘real’ boy in the uber-masculine environment of hunting and trapping in Labrador. However Wayne’s mother always feels guilty that they repressed the girl ‘inside’ him and that she has somehow ‘murdered’ her daughter. Thomasina is more free-thinking and is always keen to tell Wayne the truth and to nurture both male and female personalities.
Winter tells the story with sensitivity and compassion for all her characters. Even Treadway who is determined to repress his son’s ‘femininity’, has redeeming qualities and cannot be labelled as the bad guy. The characters are considerately and carefully developed; the main characters are by no means two-dimensional and I think Winter was keen to free her characters from societal constraints. However I’m not quite sure that she achieved this. The whole novel is reined in by traditional gender conventions and, while I think that Winter was limited by the reader’s need for some kind of closure, her treatment of Wayne’s supposed liberation from hormone treatment is questionable. Why does Annabel have to be girly, sweet and emotional? And why do Annabel and Wayne have to be two separate people? Winter creates a split personality, almost like twins within the same person, but by having two identities – Wayne and Annabel, one masculine and one feminine – she is perpetuating the idea that there cannot be something in-between, something different from the male and female binary that is a societal norm.
Before I read the novel, I had read a review of ‘Annabel’ by the New York Times in which it was questioned why Wayne must represent a symbol of freedom rather than being simply given the freedom of a character, which I didn’t quite understand until the conclusion of the novel. The ending although positive and obviously trying to show how Wayne can fit in to ‘normal’ society and leave behind the isolation in Labrador, it seems to fall a bit short. Is the resolution really that Wayne sees the more open androgyny of students in Boston compared to the sexist society in Labrador, where men and women must fulfil gender roles, and he is completely content? The solution is for him to move from a remote and rural area to city so he can blend in?? This suggests that freedom is not standing out from the crowd and this is definitely a problematic statement.
I feel like I have been overly critical of this novel, which tries very hard with a difficult and sensitive topic. However there are some implausible elements which personally left me feeling a bit unsatisfied and I felt at times that the descriptions of the Canadian landscape were overly metaphorical which made the setting seem just a little bit romanticized.
Overall it is an aspirational novel and was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I just think that the boundaries surrounding literature about inter-sexuality need to be pushed a bit further in order to create something truly progressive.