Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Annabel, a book of contrasts


Full title: Annabel


Author: Kathleen Winter
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (2011)
Genre: Fiction, historical
Attributes: 480 pages, hard cover

On the scale of Zero to One: Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Annabel is a very rich book, where readers are likely to lose themselves in reverie and in contemplation, and where not a single paragraph is dull. There are surprises waiting at every turn of the page. Kathleen Winter is an excellent manipulator of metaphors. She has the talent of a prestidigitator, who wields words with force and conviction.
The novel (shortlisted for Canada Reads this year) follows the growth into maturity of a “boy lost in woman,” as the author describes the protagonist. Wayne, born hermaphrodite, knows nothing about the secret buried inside his body until his adolescence makes it impossible for the secret to be preserved any longer. He finds about his androgyny via medical intervention, when he is surprised to hear that he had impregnated himself.
Because the protagonist is a person of such biological complexity, the novel as a whole opens itself to a number of other, similarly powerful, complexities. What stands out is the contrast between the winter landscapes of Labrador, where everything is white and human-less, and the urban atmosphere of the Canadian town of St. John’s, where things are coloured, boxed, entirely human. Characters in the novel experience both these sides: the white, as well as the colourful; the near, as well as the distant; the male, as well as the female.

Croydon Harbor, the fictional Labradorian village where Wayne was born,
could be very easily imagined to look like this: pristine Canadian landscape.
Source: TripAdvisor
Annabel is not a lachrymose account of the crash between genders, and neither is it a critical appraisal of the binary oppositions between biological categories. On the contrary, the author has chosen a path of quiet appreciation of the complexity existent inside the body of a single person. There are moments of tension, of course; a hermaphrodite cannot go smoothly through life. Society is not nonexistent; in fact, it kicks hard, and where it hurts. But the general feeling is that the main characters are too wise to answer with violence to any form of injustice done to them. They seem to live in a stratosphere beyond society, as some Platonic ideas that exist independent of the viciousness of human beings.
Wayne defines himself by reflecting on what he sees. And what he sees is often extremely evocative, as when he moves to St. John's and perceives for the first time the sexual division of life:
"You define a tree and you do not see what it is; it becomes its name. It is the same with woman and man. Everywhere Wayne looked there was the one or the other, male or female, abandoned by the other. The loneliness of this cracked the street in half."
All characters in Annabel are capable of such cognitive finesse. They are thoughtful: creatures made up of thoughts and words, who move through existence with firm convictions but without a strong will to leave a mark behind. They are either subjects of nature, or victims of man. This is a duplicity that summarizes everything that can be said about Annabel: that it is a book of complexities, a novel of contradictions, a text of oppositions.