Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

I’ve been wanting to blog about this book since finishing it, and should have written my thoughts down immediately, as I’m now into a completely different book called Eaarth, by Bill McKibbon (also worth blogging about in a welcome-to-the-present-and-happening-nightmare-of-climate-change way).

Unlike Eaarth, Annabel is fiction, and an entirely different book, though the situation it describes could easily represent another kind of nightmare. That it doesn’t tells a great deal about the author’s sensibility. Imagine giving birth to a baby with ambiguous genitalia: the child is both a boy and a girl. There are a variety of directions in which a writer could take this idea. Kathleen Winter doesn’t go anywhere expected, yet the story she tells has the familiarity of truth about it.

Set in a tiny town in Labrador, in a landscape that is brutal and stark and wild, Winter writes about this child as if he were as natural and normal as any other. He is loved, in all the complicated and heart-breakingly ordinary ways, by his parents. But he is also different. His difference depends on who is looking at him, and on what he means to the other person — what he represents. To his mother, he is partly the daughter she did not let live (in the sense that her child’s femaleness was denied from birth onward). To his father, he is a child that must be trained the right way, to become a man, no matter the pain and consequences; his father sees that choosing a stable identity will protect the child from harm. To the neighbour who attended his birth, and knows his body’s secret, the boy is just as much a girl, and she quietly nurtures the girl-side of the child.

His body is a secret to everyone but these three, including to the child himself, until he is a teenager, and he is raised as a boy; but Winter delicately draws him so that we understand that he is both. He is not one or the other. He is himself.

The book made me reflect not only on gender, and how gendered our world is — the way there are clothes and colours and toys and emotions and expectations for boys and different clothes and colours and toys and emotions and expectations for girls — but it also made me reflect on individuality, and the preciousness and potential of each and every life.

Roles are rigid. Individuals are not. What potential any of us have if we are loved. How the self longs to flower in the light of love.

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