The last book I finished in 2010 is also, by far, the biggest hit to come out of the Newfoundland writing scene this year (Winter, though now living in Montreal, spent many years living and writing in this province). Annabel achieved the enviable feat of being nominated for Canada’s three biggest fiction prizes this year — the Giller, the Governor General’s, and the Rogers Writers Trust awards. While it didn’t win any of them, being nominated for all three is a trifecta most writers would be thrilled to have on their resume.
As I’ve explained before, I sometimes have a little resistance to picking up any novel that’s been designated as “THE” novel of the year and hyped with critical acclaim and awards, lest I find that it’s all style, no substance. The subject matter of this one also gave me pause. Just as some people have been reluctant to read Emma Donoghue’s fabulous novel Room because they don’t think they can bear a novel about victims of abuse and abduction, I was a little squeamish about hermaphroditism — the subject of this novel. I found the medical aspects hard to read, but the human drama — the story of a child born in Labrador in 1968 with both male and female genetalia — is riveting, and I’m so glad I finally did read this novel.
The child is named Wayne and raised as a boy with the help of surgery, hormones, and a father who is determined not to see the feminine side of his son. Wayne’s mother Jacinta and their family friend Thomasina see the unacknowledged girl within Wayne, but his father Treadway wants his son to be a real Labrador man. That brief summary, however, oversimplifies the characters and relationships far too much. Treadway is a beautifully developed character, an intelligent, thoughtful, passionately loyal man who has huge difficulty accepting a child who is both male and female. His character, and the relationship between Wayne and Treadway, is really the focal point of the book, although there are many intriguing, well-drawn characters and many layers to this coming-of-age story.
The Labrador landscape is described with loving attention to detail, as is the urban landscape when Wayne moves to St. John’s (townie that I am, I enjoyed this part of the book most). Setting is important in this novel, almost as important as character. If I had one quibble with Annabel it was that Winter violates that old “show, don’t tell” rule a little too often for my taste — we often get pages and pages of the author interpreting characters for us, telling us what they’re like and how they think. She doesn’t need this and neither do we — when she shows, she delineates character so brilliantly that she could easily have trusted readers to draw their own conclusions without quite so much authorial intrusion. But this one quibble certainly does not spoil a powerful and memorable novel.