Annabel by Kathleen Winter

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 Shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize

Five words from the blurb: baby, secret, boy, girl, struggle

Annabel begins in 1968 with the birth of a baby in a remote part of north-west Canada. Everything about the infant is normal, apart from the fact it has both male and female sexual organs. In order to fit in the parents decide to bring their child up as a boy called Wayne, keeping the dual sex a secret from almost everyone – including Wayne. This book is a coming-of age story in which Wayne slowly learns the truth about his birth and battles against the inner female feelings he calls “Annabel”.

The writing was very crisp and precise, with many beautiful descriptions of life in this harsh, cold community. Unfortunately the distant, almost clinical writing style made it hard to connect with the characters on an emotional level. I longed to know what was going on inside Wayne’s head, but instead the reader is just an outside observer, witnessing only the major events in his life. I wanted to know his thoughts on a day-to-day level, but unfortunately I was only able to get brief glimpses of his inner turmoil. 

The child knew that a grim, matter-of-fact attitude was required of him by his father, and he learned how to exhibit such an attitude, and he did not mind it because it was the way things were, but it was not his authentic self. His authentic self loved to fold paper in half and cut out elaborate bilaterally symmetrical shapes: curlicues, geometrics, architectural planes that bore elaborate sills at the bottom and came to luxurious apexes.

Much of the book was written from the perspective of the parents and this raised some complex parenting issues. I initially enjoyed thinking about the pros and cons of letting a child be themselves versus the importance of fitting into society, but I quickly realised that I really wanted the book to concentrate on Wayne. Every time the narrative followed another character I became frustrated and longed for the focus to switch back to him. The last few chapters almost managed to satisfy my craving for knowledge of Wayne, but it was too little, too late.

Annabel was compelling enough to draw me through to the end, but I was left unsatisfied by the novel as a whole. In comparison to the wonderful Middlesex this book was lacking depth and emotion.

Recommended to those who like their fiction restrained, without any hint of melodrama.

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Opinions were mixed on this one:

The whole story was heartbreaking and beautiful. Amy Reads

To be honest, I had a hard time with the first half of this rather large book. The Mookse and the Gripes

I feel like I’m doing a lot of gushing lately, but I really, really loved this book. Reading Through Life


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32 Comments

  1. FleurFisher says:

    I had a good look at this when you mentioned it as an Orange Prize possibility but it really didn’t call me. Now that I read your thoughts I have to wonder what the point is if the emotional insight and depth isn’t there.

    1. Jackie says:

      FleurFisher, Lots of people seem to love it. I think you need to be a fan of quieter books, but it wasn’t for me.

  2. Ifi says:

    Yey, another book I have read.

    I must say I loved the first part of this novel. I was intrigued by the whole lifestyle in this place Labrador which I had to GOOGLE in order to find out more about!!! The descriptions were beautiful and I learnt about traplines and caribou moss of all things! I loved the character of Jacinta, she was so believable. And I felt as if I knew Treadway. ***SPOILER*** But once Wayne moved to St. John the whole book fell apart. All these silly things that happened to him. I didn´t care for Wayne at this point like I had in the first half. I was annoyed that the author concentrated more on these events and forgot about the issues Wayne was struggling with, (which was why I think we picked up this book in the first place). Everything needed to happen quickly to wrap up the book. As you said, I too wanted to get inside his head. I felt I did in the first part but then it lost its charm and I lost interest in poor Wayne. Glad I read it but would´t recommend it.

    1. Jackie says:

      SPOILERS!!

      Ifi, It is great to see our reading tastes matching again – I’d describe this as an OK book, but one I wouldn’t recommend to others too.

      I agree about Wayne and St John. The book could have been a fascinating insight into gender differences and expectations, but it went off on a weird tangent and I didn’t really care what he was up to. I loved the scene in the clothes shop towards the end, but the book could have been like that all the way through – such a shame as it had great potential.

  3. Sandy says:

    It would be really hard for anyone writing about this topic to follow in the footsteps of Middlesex. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, Yes. A very hard act to follow. I’m not sure anyone will be able to top it. :-(

  4. Ann says:

    Thanks for the review.
    Ann

  5. stujallen says:

    this seems like a diffcult book ,and one that dosen’t wet my appetite to read it ,I read middlesex and wasn’t bowled over by it ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, This book is very different in style to Middlesex. Perhaps you’ll like this one if you didn’t enjy Middlesex?

  6. I’ve been really intrigued by this book since the Giller Prize, but I don’t have much urgency to read it. I also still haven’t read Middlesex, but that one appeals to me much more.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, Middlesex is very good, but also very long. I highly recommend that you give it a try, but ensure you have plently of free time to complete it :-)

  7. Annabel says:

    Given the book’s title, I think I’ll find it difficult to read! I liked but didn’t love Middlesex, but that was some years ago when it first came out – might like it more now.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, If you didn’t enjoy Middlesex then you might like this – it is very different in style. I can see your concerns about the title – not sure how I’d get on with a book called Jackie!

  8. An interesting topic, but a pity you didn’t see further inside Wayne’s head. Do you think his part should have been written in the first person maybe?

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, Yes. A first person narrative would have been a big improvement for this one. I guess it depends on your reading taste, but I want to know what the person with the difficulty is thinking, not what those around them are doing. :-(

  9. Monica says:

    Ah, I do need that emotional depth. Will likely not bother with this one then.

    1. Jackie says:

      Monica, Sometimes it is noce to cross a book off the TBR pile :-)

  10. Kathleen says:

    I will definitely read Middlesex first!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, That is a very good plan :-)

  11. Jenners says:

    I just loved MIddlesex…I imagine it would be hard to measure up to that book. And comparisons would be common because there isn’t a glut of hermaprodite books out there.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, Apparently there are several hermaphrodite books out there, but noone seems to be jumping up and down with excitement about them. I guess that is because none are as good as Middlesex ;-)

  12. TERESA says:

    This one has been on my wishlist for a while as I loved Middlesex but I’m not so sure now…

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, Annabel is quite quick and easy to read so it might be worth taking a chance on it?

  13. I read the first 75 pages of this book when I borrowed it from the library but had to return it before I’d finished. Then, when I ordered a copy from the publisher (because I couldn’t stand the thought of having to wait any longer), they were caught between hardcover and paperback, and there was a delay, which felt excruciatingly long. So I was thrilled to see it appear on the Orange list and have a reason to immediately move it back to the top of the TBR stack now that I finally have my own copy. (I’ve only skimmed your thoughts to avoid spoilers, but it already sounds like I’m going to enjoy it more than you did.)

    1. Jackie says:

      BuriedInPrint, Sorry to hear that you’ve had to wait so long to read it. I hope that all the anticipation is rewarded and that you enjoy the book more than I did. I look forward to seeing your thoughts.

  14. Vasilly says:

    What a great review. I bought this book a few months ago and now I really want to read it to see if I’ll like it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Vasilly, It is dividing opinion. I look forward to finding out which side of the fence you fall :-)

  15. Kristie says:

    Hi Jackie, Your taste in books usually matches mine quite closely. I think this is one of the rare exceptions. I loved Annabel! That could be the Canadian in me. I thought that Kathleen Winter nailed the Labrador landscape and lifestyle. That said, I do think that the book started out more strongly than it finished. I liked how his family grappled with the decisions they’d made. Haven’t read Middlesex yet though, so may like it even more.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kristie, I agree that the descriptions of Canada were very good. (I’ve not been to Labrador, but could picture it thanks to the book). It does sound as though we had similar opinions about the text, but overall you were more willing to forgive the flaws. 3 1/2 stars means that I thought the book was OK, but I’m sure a personal connection with the area would have raised my score. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on Middlesex now.

  16. Tricia says:

    Jackie, I just finished Annabel and loved it…I think that the distant writing style worked well in this case – it actually caused me to feel more emotional, if that makes sense. Maybe because I filled in the gaps?

  17. Amy says:

    Thanks for linking to my review, and glad to see you enjoyed this even if you didn’t love it. You are right, a book from Wayne’s perspective with more of his thoughts and feelings would be really interesting.

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  1. The 2011 Orange Prize Longlist – Farm Lane Books Blog
  2. Annabel by Kathleen Winter « Bibliojunkie

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