There’s a lot to recommend Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, Annabel.
Set in 1968, in a remote coastal town in Labrador, Canada, a baby is born – neither obviously a girl nor a boy. Parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and midwife, Thomasina, keep the circumstances of the birth a secret. Treadway decides that the baby will live as a boy and names him Wayne, although the women both covertly mourn and nurture the boy’s female side.
“Whenever she imagined her child, grown up without interference from a judgmental world, she imagined its male and female halves as complementing each other, and as being secretly, almost magically powerful. It was the growing up part she did not want to imagine. The social part, the what will we tell everyone part, the part that asks how will we give this child so much love it will know no harm from the cruel reactions of people who do not understand.”
Life in Labrador is dominated by hunting and fishing, and Wayne, with his penchant for synchronized swimming and sketching never quite finds his place.
The detail about everyday life in Labrador is exquisite and some of the best writing I’ve read about a place in a very long time. Descriptions of men hunting trap lines; stocking pantries with preserves and sheds with wood before snow sets in; and a place where fresh milk is a luxury and exotic meats such as caribou are everyday fare, are vivid and exquisitely written. The remote and harsh environment is used to great effect, representing a place that is both exposed and a haven, the same of which can be said of the social landscape of Labrador.
“…the brutal grandeur of the real Labrador took over. They didn’t call this place the big land for nothing. It was big in a way that people who came in either respected and followed or disdained at their peril.”
Storylines that test expectations, loyalty and morals are subtly created for each of the characters in the book and while some elements of the story may seem inconsequential, they are in fact a part of Winter’s greater vision that tests the difference between standing alone or conforming. There’s a remarkable scene where Wayne and Treadway build a bridge – it demonstrates Winter’s careful storytelling and what occurs is both wonderful and devastating (again, a parallel with Labrador’s landscape).
This book would have been a four star read were it not for an element of the story that is revealed three-quarters of the way through (without spoilers, whilst what was revealed could actually happen, it is extremely rare and to date not officially documented, a fact that I recognized only because of my genetics studies). So while most readers would take this particular element of the story in their stride, it jolted me out of Winter’s otherwise superbly crafted world.
3.5/5 I’ll certainly look forward to reading more by Winter.