Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Orange 2011: Annabel (Kathleen Winter)

My second Orange of 2011 is another debut novel and another novel dealing with an issue alien to me - Annabel by Kathleen Winter is the story of a hermaphrodite. The principle character, Annabel/Wayne is born of indeterminate sex, having a vagina, a tiny penis and one testicle. Is he/she a boy or a girl? The mother can't decide, but eventually his father decides that he is a boy and medical procedures are performed to cement this decision. Throughout his childhood, his mother cannot quite come to accept this, and frequently thinks of Wayne as her daughter. Whether it is this, or whether Wayne actually is a girl, causes issues as he grows up - he desires a beautiful swimsuit rather than involvement in the boyish pursuits that his father tries to inflict on him.

I didn't think that the subject matter would really appeal to me, but it was something that I didn't know anything about really, and I found Winter's treatment of it persuasive, and it gave a fascinating insight into the nature of identity - it wasn't just a look at Annabel/Wayne's feelings but at those of his parents. And I was interested to know how the story would play out. I also found the stark setting of Labrador, Canada captured my attention, and reminded me a little of some of Margaret Atwood's Canadian writing. I've seen some comparisons made with Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, but I haven't read that so I can't offer an opinion on that! Beautiful writing too I thought.

I did find that the book went a little bit off the boil in the last third; its success in the first half was largely due to the exploration of hermaphroditism, and the knowledge that eventually Wayne would discover what had happened to him. Winter tried to introduce more of a plot to bring the book to a close, but I didn't think that that quite worked as well as the first half.

Again, it's a little too early in my longlist reading for me to discern whether or not I think it will make it onto the shortlist, but I am once more glad that the novel I have just finished made it onto the longlist as I found it worth reading and would probably not have come across it otherwise. I also passed my copy this morning onto a colleague who was MOST dubious about it, saying that the subject matter DID NOT appeal at all...however, when she turned up at lunchtime to relieve me she said that she could not put it down and also used the word "beautiful".

This title is published by Jonathon Cape, and I am very grateful to Fiona from Random House sending me a copy to read.


  1. I like the sound of this one as I really enjoyed Middlesex but several bloggers have thought it pales in comparison. Will see if my library has it.

  2. This sounds like a really interesting read. For some reason, hermaphrodites do intrigue me. Surely it is better for the individual to decide their sex as they get older.

  3. The adult child of close friends of mine has been through exactly this and, understanding as we have tried to be, I don't quite grasp the ins and outs of the situation. Thank you so much for this review Verity, I'll definitely be looking for this one.

  4. I can see some comparisons to Middlesex (obviously the subject matter, but also the fact that this is a bildungsroman novel and a family saga) but some of it is so different like the narrative structure (from what I remember Middlesex is written in a mix of linear and circular narrative) and the way that the central character identifies their gender in the end. I found Annabel more of an exploration of what gender and sex actually are and in the end realising that neither genders traditional presentation quites fits for the main character, while Middlesex is (from what I remember, it was loooong ago) a journey story where a person who doesn't feel quite right as a woman moves to identifying as male in later life?

    So excited to see you reading Orange picks btw :)

  5. I think that this did have some good sections, but also several bits that didn't quite work - I thought the exploration of sexuality worked far better in Middlesex. Agree that several sections could be classed as beautiful though :-)

  6. I opted not to read Annabel when it made the Giller shortlist because it didn't do much for me, especially considering the length. Since it made the Orange list, however, I started to almost look forward to it. It isn't one jumping out to me right away, but I am looking forward to it, albeit with somewhat measured expectations.

  7. This is definitely one of my favourites so far, not only of the Orange reading I've done this season (not quite halfway through the longlist yet), but of this reading year.

    I think the third section of the novel was necessary because we, as readers, don't have a sense of how Wayne/Annabel would be received by a wider community (because in terms of tolerance we only have the reactions of family and friends to consider, in the context of a very small community in Croyden Harbour). It's not very comfortable reading about those struggles, but I do think it adds a necessary (albeit disturbing) perspective to the character's experience. That's my take on it anyway (rest of my thoughts here if you're curious).


Do leave a comment - I love to hear from people who read my blog.