Annabelle by Kathleen Winter

For readers who might have liked Eugenides’ Middlesex better if only it didn’t have all those peripheral subplots, here’s something you might like: Annabel.

There are a few differences: Annabel‘s set in rural Labrador while Middlesex is set largely in Detroit. Wayne’s parents know from the start that he’s mixed gender, and choose to raise him as a boy. Callie, and her family, do not realize she is genetically male while Wayne suspects early on that he’s not quite like the other boys. Winter’s book is darker than Eugenides’, a tone which I’m sure many would consider more appropriate to a book about gender issues; it is also rather more self-consciously artistic in describing the characters, their relationships, motivations and actions.

At the risk of sounding like Johnny Cash (and Shel Silverstein), the eponymous character of Annabel is a “boy” named Wayne. He is born in 1968 in rural Labrador, and while the doctors diagnosed the child’s mixed gender status easily enough, technology limitations and social constraints of the time combined to force the parents to pick the gender in which they wanted their child raised without any medical intervention other than hormone pills. Growing up in that time and place, where men were masculine and women feminine, husbands run traplines and wives homemakers, Wayne never felt he fit in completely with his father’s expectations, though his mother seemed more amenable to foolish girly things; he is attracted to the glittery bathing suits of the Olympic synchronized swim team, and his mother purchases a similarly designed suit.

It isn’t until Wayne begins adolescence and a teacher notices that he has abdominal bloating and breast buds that the truth comes out fully. Unfortunately, the teacher gets in trouble with the local school system for rushing Wayne to a hospital which is both large enough to be capable of handling Wayne’s surgical requirements and also far enough away to keep the issue comparatively private–small towns are gossip mills no matter when and where they are. After graduating from high school, Wayne moves to a larger town, wrestles with his gender issues and stops taking the hormones.

As with some of the other books I’ve read for the blog, what to suggest depends largely on what the reader liked about this one. The obvious suggestions would be Eugenides’ Middlesex or Keith Maillard’s Two Strand River, but if its the Northern backdrop, Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Child might be appealing. Annabel isn’t the best book I’ve read in the past year, though the fact it’s not my favorite novel about a protagonist dealing with gender issues is more a matter of personal taste than a reflection of the books’ comparative merits. The fact that there IS a book dealing with gender, perceptions and roles is worthwhile.


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