Only Human

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“For days after the birth Treadway knew there was a secret. He felt the secret exactly as he felt the presence of a white ptarmigan behind him in the snow, and he knew a decision had to be made.”

The books I love, particularly the novels I love, take me back to First Principles—how fiction works, why fiction matters, what it means to read. I suppose that’s because these novels so fully immerse me in their worlds that I have the feeling of being born anew into them: I have to redefine my terms. Annabel, by Canadian author Kathleen Winter, had that effect on me.

Annabel begins, in fact, with a birth: A baby is born to Jacinta and Treadway Blake in their home in the forbidding and starkly beautiful Eastern Canadian Labrador Coast in 1968. The baby, who will soon be christened Wayne, is born a true hermaphrodite—like one of every 83,000 babies, Jacinta is told later. As is customary in this time and place, Jacinta is surrounded by women at her home birth; Treadway comes indoors only momentarily, between the outdoorsman duties he relishes. At first only Jacinta and her friend, the local free spirit, Thomasina, know the truth about the baby’s gender.

For days after the birth Treadway knew there was a secret, and it was only a matter of opening his attention in a way he was used to doing out on the land before the truth of the baby came to him… He felt the secret in the house exactly as he felt the presence of a white ptarmigan behind him in  the snow, and he understood the secret’s details, its identity, as easily as he would know the bird was a white ptarmigan before he turned around and saw it. He knew his baby had both a boy’s and a girl’s identity, and he knew a decision had to be made.

Treadway is solitary, decent, eminently pragmatic, most at home out along the trapline where the men of Labrador spend most of the winter. But Treadway is also a reader, as much monk as brute. “It never once occurred to Treadway to do the thing that lay in the hearts of Jacinta and Thomasina: to let his baby live the way it had been born. That, in his mind, would not have been a decision. It would have been indecision, and it would have caused harm.”

And so, at Treadway’s insistence, Jacinta takes the baby Wayne to have an operation in order to “create a believable masculine anatomy,” as the surgeon explains it. As the novel unfolds the first couple decades of Wayne’s life, it will often work this way—the truth about Wayne is a secret that cannot remain hidden, most importantly from Wayne himself. In its quiet, lyrical, literary way, then, Annabel becomes a book of considerable suspense: Will Wayne discover the truth about himself? How and when will his true nature present itself? And how will he respond? And will Treadway, whose good intentions we eventually come to sympathize with, continue on his disastrous course of action?

At times, the tension between father and son becomes nearly excruciating—the kind of empathic pain that is one of the great pleasures of reading. There are a handful of moments in the early parts of the novel feel somewhat overwritten—the passage that gives the novel its title, for example; or the prologue, which strains for a mystical, magical tone that isn’t consistent with the rest of the book, and isn’t necessary. Or this bit of exposition, just a little later, that encapsulates a period of several years:

Because Treadway was not a man who could reach out to his wife, and because Jacinta had her own inner world, her memories of the city, and her tormented wish for a world in which her child did not have to be confined to something smaller than who he was, the two of the them grew separate throughout Wayne’s childhood.

But such flaws shouldn’t stop anyone from reading this beautiful novel. In her roving third-person point of view, Winter takes us into the thoughts of all the main characters, and though the prose remains uniformly lyrical, a distinct internal terrain is created for each. We also get a strong sense of each character’s psychic limits, including Wayne’s—as if the hard physical setting of Labrador were incompatible with certain degrees of introspection or rumination.

In what is left out, however, Winter gives a strong suggestion that such limits can be simultaneously adaptive and disastrous. She captures the way children simultaneously understand and don’t understand, the way parents simultaneously protect and harm their children, the way the truth both imprisons us and sets us free. She embodies these paradoxes and breathes new life into them, so that when we read about Wayne, we don’t need any prodding to make the connection that all of us have secrets of our birth that reveal themselves to us slowly, but that will insist upon being taken into account as we struggle against the categories others want to put us into.

There is an argument to be had here about whether Annabel takes an essentialist view of gender; the assumption that seems to operate within the novel is that certain things are inherently female—not just the beginning of menstruation, but an interest in synchronized swimming, say, or a kind of caring or comportment—and cannot be contained within the shell of maleness for very long. Winter suggests that to nurture certain aspects of Wayne’s personality is inevitably to nurture his maleness or femaleness. But throughout most of the novel, she draws Wayne’s internal and external environment so convincingly as to make that argument feel beside the point.

Annabel is a novel that evokes deep emotion, a coming-of-age story that risks sentimentality without ever sliding over into it. Throughout, Winter pushes right up against that boundary, daring us to feel the depth of her characters’ existential anxieties. If there is a touch of the sensational in the hermaphrodite birth, Winter always pulls back before leading us into artificially heightened territory. There is nothing cynical here, nothing self-referential, nothing hip or particularly modern or post-anything. Annabel is simple, touching, real, absolutely convincing and sympathetic in its portrayal of well-intended people in their attempts to deal with a person who defies the most basic categorization: the first question we ask when we hear a baby has been born.

Daniel Stolar is the author of the short story collection The Middle of the Night. His fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in a number of literary magazines. He teaches at DePaul University in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. More from this author →