Winner of the 2010 Independent Literary Awards
Winner of the 2011 Thomas Head Raddall Award
Shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize
Shorlisted for the 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2010 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Shorlisted for the 2011 OLA Evergreen Award
Shorlisted for the 2010 Amazon.ca First Novel Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2014
Longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2011 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award
Quill & Quire Books of the Year ~ 2010
Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2010
Amazon.ca Best Books of the Year ~ 2010
Vancouver Sun Top 10 Canadian Books of the Year ~ 2010
New York Times Editors’ Choice ~ 2011
As I am sure you can see from the above list, Annabel, the debut novel from Kathleen Winter, already has had its fair share of praise; after finishing the novel I have decided to heap some more praise upon the book. This novel is the story of Wayne Blake, a hermaphrodite born in the late 60s in rural Labrador to a family of modest means. Wayne’s story is heart-wrenching. As the novel progresses over the course of several decades, we are taken through Wayne’s struggles with the female identity inside of him known as Annabel. The poetic quality of the prose, the well developed characters, and the specific and intricate detail make this a very special novel. I can count on one hand the number of other books that would be in the same class as Annabel.
The characters are the heart of this book. In addition to the magical protagonist Wayne, Annabel has an incredible supporting cast that help turn this book into more than just a story but a glimpse in one incredible person’s world. We follow Wayne right from the moment of his birth to his 20s. As we go along there are so many beautiful and surreal episodes in his life. His parents, Treadway and Jacinta, are very interesting characters. At different points through the book I had a variety of opinions about both of them; at certain points I adored them and at certain points I had genuine disdain for them. All of the characters, even the minor ones outside of the immediate Blake family were also well done. Wally’s childhood friends, Wally and Gracie specifically, both had important roles in Wayne’s life. Thomasina, Jacinta’s friend who was one of the few who knew Wayne’s secret and planted the name Annabel in his head, was another interesting character; her role in Wayne’s life is very complicated.
One thing that is very evident when reading Annabel is just how complex this novel is thematically. This complexity could keep literary scholars writing for decades. Primarily we have themes of identity and isolation. Identity is obviously important with Wayne but it is also important with several other characters. Wally struggles with her identity as a singer, Jacinta as a mother and wife, Treadway as a father and husband, and Thomasina struggling and searching for her place in the world. Isolation affects most of the same characters in a variety of ways, including physical isolation (rural versus urban towards the end) and psychological isolation, specifically with Wayne. While the themes are important, prevalent, and numerous, they do not in anyway get in the way of the story or the rich lives that we are experiencing throughout the story. At no time does the story feel like a didactic or “moral” tale.
If you were to look at some of the cornerstones of Canadian literature, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners; Mordecai Richler’s Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; Marian Engel’s Bear; or Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot for example, you have a character who is trying to find their place in the world despite external obstacles and circumstances beyond their control (neatly summed up in Northrop Frye’s “Garrison Mentality” thesis). Kathleen Winter has created a completely original story with unique and deep characters while also joining a great tradition of CanLit protagonists finding their way through life, whether by design or accident I am not sure. Annabel is a great gift to the world of literature. I have no hesitation in saying that this novel is one of the best books of the 21st century in all of English literature, not just Canadian.