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  • Survival Story
  • Austin Gilmour (bio)
Annabel. Kathleen Winter. Grove/Atlantic Inc. 480 pages; paper, $14.95.

To what extent is a novel a product of its setting? And to the same end, how much does place owe to its novelistic depiction? As is so often the case in successful Canadian literature, Kathleen Winter's Annabel is a novel as much about place as it is about the characters who reside in it. The novel's setting is no mere stage onto which characters rush, but the integral facet of the characters' lives that produce their desires, fears, and conflicts. It comes as no surprise that as a Giller Prize finalist—one of the Canada's foremost literary awards—Winter's literary expertise sneaks up on readers in the best of ways, so natural and direct is her prose.

Her debut novel, Annabel, finds itself deep in the largely untamed wilderness of twentieth-century Labrador. Begun during a decade that so altered contemporary ideas, the novel's characters are at once preserved and sheltered from the gender and racial enlightenment of the 1960s by Labrador's near impenetrable forest of tradition and inaccessibility. It is into this culture of hard-boiled masculinity and contained femininity that a child both male and female is born. The decision is made: raise the child as a boy, Wayne. Untold to him, Wayne's intersex nature is secreted by his parents and a friend of his mother, though the ghost of the daughter he might have been remains loosely concealed.

Comparisons to Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex (2002) are bound to occur, misplaced as they may be. These are two significantly different novels. Eugenides's novel takes on international concerns and creates a historiography of the Greek immigrant experience in America, while maintaining sure devotion to a scientific accounting of 5-alpha-reductase deficiency—the recessive condition accountable for the majority of intersex individuals. Middlesex is a novel of precision in which questions are to be answered. Annabel makes no promises of assurances and leads readers well away—and rightfully so—from science. Indeed, much of Winter's prose reads as timelessly as the hard necessities of survival in Labrador. Wayne's difficulties follow suit.

Written in the omniscient third, Annabel's secrets are such only to the characters. Early on, readers are made aware of the life into which Wayne is born and his parents, Treadway and Jacinta, are forced. In this way, it is not mystery that propels Winter's novel, but a question as to the nature of survival. In Labrador, life is something painstakingly worked from the land in seasonal cycles. To an outside eye, the traditional roles of men and women are blurred, though within the secluded communities of the province they are made definite. New mothers are assisted in giving birth by the women they have grown to maturity with, but these are women who know "how to ice fish and sew caribou hide moccasins and stack wood in a pile that would not fall down in the months when their husbands walked the traplines." Men maintain a noted distance to allow their wives space to complete their duties, though husbands must also extend considerable devotion within the home as a way to atone for the long months spent absent their families. Tenderness flows necessarily on a continuum toward ruggedness, a scale that governs all interactions between the men and women of Croydon Harbour, Labrador. Wayne's own survival, then, is recognized as a more personal dilemma than the conflict between his male and female characteristics. It surfaces as an oppositional pair: the external Wayne contending for identity with the internal feminine, which he eventually terms the "ambiguous, feminine, undecided."

If Winter's omniscient third narration has a fault, it shows itself in the characters' occasional too-secure awareness of one another. The most severe moment of this inter-character awareness occurs shortly after Wayne's birth. Treadway is not told about his son's intersex characteristics, and yet several days after the birth he "knew there was a secret, and it was only a matter of opening his attention in a way he was used...


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