Like Wayne himself, Kathleen Winter’s novel is beautiful, but difficult. It’s remarkably well crafted, full of lovely prose and haunting images. From a pure language standpoint, it’s a delightful read, and one that reminds you what an author can do when she takes the time to choose every word carefully.
Annabel is full of beautiful (but harsh) scenery, and beautiful (but equally harsh) characters. That, I’m afraid, is where my dissatisfaction with the book originates. The story is very cold, almost clinical, and the characters are largely without emotion. There are a lot of powerful scenes in the book that elicit feelings of both hope and despair in the reader, but we’re alone in experiencing those feelings. The characters are like disinterested actors, simply walking through a rehearsal of their lines. The equally disinterested narrator tells us what happens to them, but offers no insight into what the characters are feeling. Thematically, I suspect very much that this emotional distance is intentional, but it creates a real issue with reader engagement.
As for the dilemma of Wayne/Annabel, I’m of mixed feelings there. This is absolutely a book about contradictions, and the contradiction of gender is first-and-foremost in every chapter. Annabel is not a book with a hermaphrodite character – it’s a book about a hermaphrodite character. With the exception of some medical interventions that are critical to driving the plot, however, Wayne/Annabel could just as easily have been a more traditional transgendered/transsexual character. The whole issue with the sequined bathing suit, for example, is something I particularly identified with.
However, it feels as if Kathleen Winter is using the biological construct of a hermaphrodite to justify (or even excuse) the fact that she is exploring a theme of gender identity. Undoubtedly, the physical fact of being a hermaphrodite, as opposed to the psychological theories of a transsexual, likely does as much to ease most readers through the story, as it does to ease the author through challenges I would have liked to see explored. As a transgendered reader, though, it feels like a cheat – and that annoyed me.
One thing I must say is that the author knows precisely how/where to end a story. Instead of a nice, tidy, storybook resolution for all involved, we’re left with a series of transitions. Kathleen Winter leaves us with a glimpse of characters who are changing, who are progressing from despair to hope . . . or, at least, the potential for hope. Like life, there are no guarantees of a happily ever after, but as readers we are made to feel comfortable enough to let the characters go, and trust them to take care of themselves.
Ultimately, it’s a book I can definitely say I admire but, sadly, not one that I can say I loved.