The question in Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, Annabel, is not what is the novel about, but who. I don’t mean that because the protagonist Wayne is born intersexed and so the novel explores his dual identity as both Wayne and Annabel: both-and. No, I mean the question who is this novel about because while the text is ostensibly occupied with exploring Wayne/Annabel’s sense of identity, it is even more preoccupied with how his father Treadway, her mothers (both biological and metaphorical) Jacinta and Thomasina, and his friend, Wally navigate their identities in relation to one another.
In other words, the novel asks readers to think about how they, too, are formed and reformed in relation to others and how our ideas about who and how other people should be shapes our behaviour and sense of self. That is to say, how I understand myself will always be an understanding (pre)deteremined by who you are and how you (re)present yourself. The novel makes sure readers understand that this complicated way of being – in relation to others and in negotiation with the self – comes with material and psychological challenges and consequences. To be, to understand yourself, as flux and shaped by others and your surroundings, is painful and messy; it is also, in this book at least, the only honest way to live, the only way to live at all.
Beyond relations-between-people, the novel explores how self is shaped by place, history, occupation, heritage. By broadening the scope of focus from Wayne/Annabel’s discovery-of-self to encompass (in a much richer way) the negotiated identities of Jacinta, Wally, Thomasina and Treadway, the novel shows how it is not simply those with overtly or demonstrably complex identities who must work at identity, but rather is is all of us who must negotiate and navigate who we are, how we are received and shaped by the world, and how we want to be both seen and identified.
The novel achieves this broadened understanding through shifting narrative point of view, but also through the deliberate choices and plot sequences of each of these characters that allow the reader to wonder who the novel is really about (and I suspect it’s meant to be about each of us as readers).
While I was clearly taken with the characters and thematic questions, the writing is a demonstration – for anyone taking their first creative writing class – of the proverbial “show, don’t tell” (don’t tell me someone is angry, show it to me by describing the way they make tea). Usually you want authors to do this sort of showing – you want character to be unfolded in action and scene, not in overt description. That said, this novel tipped just a little too far (for me anyway) in the “showing” in that it read – on occasion – like the first year creative writing exercise. A bit too showy. Which isn’t to say the writing is lacking – no, there are some poignant, beautiful descriptions. The showing of character through action really does make for rich scenes. All this to say it’s good writing, but good writing trying very hard to be great writing (without letting you think that it’s trying to be great writing) (perhaps this is commentary on Can Lit? Or first novels?).
The “bridge” metaphor that weaves through the text asks readers to think about the ways we each cross (mix, overlap, traverse and confuse) and join ourselves to ourselves, to one another and to our place/space. The novel operates as its bridge metaphor demands: it offers a bridge to think about and question our sense of self, our relationship to history and place, and our commitments to understanding and shaping one another.
Annabel was up for Canada Reads this year, and lost out to Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. I don’t know how I feel about national reading campaigns generally – I think there are probably some books that most people should read (what are these books? question for another post) and that the criteria for this proclamation of “you should read this!” should include whether the book tells us something about how to be… better to one another, how to contribute to our communities and how to understand ourselves and others. Annabel does these things very, very well. So while I don’t carry the same force as Jian Ghomeshi (alas) I do urge you to read Annabel and to think about who the novel is about (and to recognize, perhaps, that it’s also about you).