1968, Croydon Harbour, Labrador—remote as anywhere in modern Canada, I suppose. Remoteness is perhaps the defining mood of Annabel, so named for two of the book’s characters who are scarcely there for much of its pages. Our focus is Wayne, a child born intersex at a place and time where it is thought that the best thing to do is make sure that he’s male. Only three people in the boy’s life, his parents, Treadway and Jacinta, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina, know the secret—and they all carry misgivings about who Wayne is and what his future holds.
Obviously, tensions between masculinity and femininity play a major role in Annabel—Wayne doesn’t know his own secret for much of his life, but he does know that he isn’t quite like other boys, so much so that he’s happy to be called Annabel by Thomasina, after her deceased daughter. Wayne’s impulse towards things unsuitable to Labrador men—synchronized swimming, drapery, and Florentine bridges—causes Treadway no end of anxiety, and her household’s unhappiness causes Jacinta’s carefully maintained order to slowly fray.
However, the difference between men and women isn’t the only thing Annabel is concerned with—though that’s obviously a big thing. Annabel is about expectation, and whether or not Wayne remains male is only a part of expectation. Treadway is the latest of a long string of Labrador men who spend winters tending traplines, like their fathers before them. Jacinta, though from relatively urbane St. John’s, builds a household by gardening, canning, preserving, and knitting, much like every other wife in Croydon Harbour. Wayne is part of a generation that might break that chain, or more aptly, abandon it.
Here’s the thing about being a child—the people around you just can’t help but imagine you as an adult—and sometimes sight of the child is lost through all those imagined futures. Annabel is about that tension—and about coming to peace with it.
Dave Robson is the editor of DailyXY. He spends his time reading books, drinking Scotch, and smoking cigars.
During last year’s Canada Reads, panellist Charlotte Grey suggested that the eventual winner, Lisa Moore’s February, would be rejected by male readers due to the lack of a strong male protagonist. We disagreed with the assessment then, just as we disagree with the idea now that men will only read a certain kind of book or certain kind of character by default. That’s why, this year, we reviewed all five Canada Reads selections, operating under the assumption that men are more literate than Charlotte Grey is willing to consider. Also check our our reviews of The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden, Half-Blood Blues, by Esti Edugyan, Cockroach, by Rawi Hage, and The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood.