It was with some trepidation that I began reading Kathleen Winter’s Annabel (Grove Press/Black Cat). The book, set in a remote town in Labrador, Canada in the 1960s, follows the journey of an Intersex child from infancy through young adulthood. Although babies being born intersex is relatively common—approximately one in every 1,500 births according to the Intersex Society of North America, it is exceedingly rare for there to be intersex characters in literature.
I’ll admit I was concerned about how respectfully, and accurately it would be handled in this text. Instead of the sensationalized, largely offensive story I on some level expected, I was pleasantly surprised to find a thoughtful, compelling, and well-written novel with an intersexed protagonist.
The character Annabel is born into a quiet rural community ruled by the seasons, hard work, and conformity. She comes of age in the shadow of Wayne, the name she was given when the doctors determined she was to be raised male. The secret of her intersexed condition known only to her parents, the local midwife, and the doctors in a neighboring city, is only revealed to her as a teenager. Something I particularly enjoyed about her character was the depth and respect with which Winter crafted the thoughts and experiences of a child who feels the strain against gender norms in a world where no option but conformity seems to present itself. There is particular skill in the construction of the tiny moments of celebration like confessing to a best friend of dreaming of being a girl.
Winter also does an excellent job of troubling the perceived norms of the sexed body, but also gender itself. This obviously occurs with the main character, but just as interesting are the ways in which she highlights the limitations and struggle with gender expectations of many people in town. This is perhaps the most explicit with Thomasina, the midwife who behaves in gender inappropriate ways by leaving to travel the world after the death of her husband and daughter. It is also apparent in Annabel’s father Treadway as he strains to understand the reality of his infant child, her effeminate childhood, and particularly in regard to the eventual decisions Annabel makes regarding gender presentation and medical intervention in adulthood.
I found the largest weakness of the book were the places that Winter attempted to use medical drama as a plot device, creating a situation where as an early teenager Annabel is rushed to the hospital after it’s discovered her abdomen is filled with trapped menstrual blood. It is later revealed that at that time the doctors discover that possessing both ‘male’ and ‘female’ sexual organs she has impregnated herself and an abortion was performed. This subplot is thankfully brief, but remains medically impossible and makes the whole book take an unnecessary turn towards the sensational in a text that otherwise does such a great job of avoiding those pitfalls.
On the whole the book was evocative and well-written. As I mentioned earlier, babies are born Intersex at an incredibly frequent rate and yet so rarely do we see Intersexuality presented in fiction. Annabel by its nature breaks new ground, presenting non-sensationally an intersex child whose life is altered by well-meaning though confused parents, a medical system set on enforcing conformity and Annabel’s eventual freedom from the world they surgically and hormonally created for her in infancy. It is my hope that Annabel will pave the way for further positive intersex inclusion in novels.
By Kathleen Winter Grove Press/Black Cat
Paperback, 9780802170828, 480pp