BookBrowse Reviews Annabel by Kathleen Winter

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Annabel

A Novel

by Kathleen Winter

Annabel by Kathleen Winter X
Annabel by Kathleen Winter
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2011, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2011, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Beverly Melven
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A daringly unusual debut full of unforgettable beauty

Someone famously said once that reading novels is the best way to understand the thoughts of people other than ourselves. Or something like that. Regardless, this is the biggest reason I read fiction. I am fascinated by human beings and what makes us tick. Kathleen Winters has written a remarkable book that takes the inner lives of a small family and blows the pieces apart for us to dig through and marvel at. This book will show you some of the things inside your own head, as well as making you think twice about what your family members might be feeling.

This book is not about a confused child, but the story of how a whole family tries to figure out what it means when there is no simple answer to that basic question: Is it a boy or a girl? It's hard to fathom how large that question looms when you need a third option. So many things are gender-coded (bathrooms, clothing, hobbies, pronouns) that it's tough to function without one. When Jacinta gives birth to a baby of unclear gender in 1968 a gender is 'chosen' and Wayne is raised as a boy.  This choice lays the groundwork for the characters, and thus the reader, to grapple with the question, how much does the body we live in truly determine the kind of person we are, and the life we experience?

We spend as much time learning about Wayne's parents, and seeing how his existence makes them question their own choices, as we do watching Wayne grow up. This is a pretty typical family – they love each other, but they don't always understand each other. They make mistakes and they hurt each other. But in the end, they are a family. The nature of Wayne's differences just emphasize that we are all hiding our real selves on the inside, and no one can truly know what is happening inside other people, even those they love dearly.

More than the facts, it is the secret that does the most damage. Wayne's parents are carrying around this information, and it affects every interaction – with each other and with Wayne – and every choice they make. They are constantly reading things into Wayne's behavior, wondering if they made the right decision or if he can ever be who they think he should be. Living in a tiny, remote village in rural Canada only heightens their concerns – everyone knows everyone, and this traditional community encourages even more rigid gender roles than you'd find in a city.  And since Wayne has no knowledge of the details or even the existence of the secret, he cannot understand his parent's motives for what they do.

Winters writes with just enough distance so that we can see the process of Wayne's exploration, rather than wallow in the emotional journey. This is an exposition of the process of growing up and building an identity, something we all do.

Interesting to Note
According to the Intersex Society of North America, one in 2000 children is born with "noticeably atypical genitalia"; considerably more are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won't show up until later in life.

Reviewed by Beverly Melven

This review is from the January 13, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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