In March 1968 in an isolated Labrador village, a child is born to Treadway and Jacinta Blake. The baby is a hermaphrodite, an infant with both male and female reproductive organs. Jacinta envisions a world in which her child will embrace the sexual duality conferred at birth but that is not to be. Treadway quickly decides that his child will grow up a boy and insists on secrecy about baby’s true nature.
The only person besides the parents who knows the secret is the midwife Thomasina. At the baptism, when the priest bestows the name Wayne on the infant, she whispers “Annabel” – the name of her recently drowned daughter — thus confirming Wayne’s female self as surely as Treadway and the hospital surgeons have confirmed his maleness.
Thomasina sees people as rivers “moving from one state of being to another.” Against the haunting backdrop of the harsh Canadian north country, Wayne moves from infancy to youth; from adolescence to young adulthood as well as from ignorance to knowledge of his complex nature and, finally, from confusion to clarity. Transitions ripple through the beautifully written novel. Treadway exchanges a narrow perspective for a wider, more accepting view. Jacinta shifts from strength to weakness; Thomasina from complicity to outspoken candor.
Although she introduces an unsettling event that is scientifically questionable, Winter is generally careful not to sensationalize her protagonist’s duality. Rather than emphasize the developing child’s otherness, she skillfully draws the reader’s attention to the dualities that exist in nature, in people, in towns and cities even as she offers up bridges, both literal and figurative, as a subtle reminder of the forces that connect disparate elements.
Annabel is a story of love: a parent’s love for a child, a husband’s and wife’s love for each other, a friend’s love for another friend and, at the very heart, an individual’s love for self. In the book, as in reality, love is challenged and strained and yet survives. The book is a finalist for three Canadian literary awards: The Scotiabank Giller Prize, The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.