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Annabel – Kathleen Winter

May 2, 2011

I’ve been trying to write about this book for days now. It isn’t coming easy.

Sometimes you read a book and it just gets you and you wonder, ‘where did that author come from?’ I want to say that this happened with Annabel. And when you look at where this author came from, in this case a former writer for children’s television show Sesame Street, you hope that some of her moral magic managed to slip into her previous work so that children have in some way been touched by her humanity.

I did not fall in love with book at the beginning. It was interesting and fast-paced, but then it slowed down, and I didn’t find myself interested in the characters just yet. I could see some elements being tossed in that were interesting, like Wayne’s interest in geometry and symmetry, and I knew that they would come back to play later in the novel in some way (and are used quite satisfactorily), and I enjoyed it but didn’t fall in love.

Until Wayne got to Grade 7. If you can read this book till the point of Grade 7, I will be amazed if you can successfully wrench it from your hands before you have finished it.

I can only possibly recommend this book, though it comes with reservations. Sometimes the author appears to be lost in the wilderness of her words. Sentences say something, say many things, but not what you think they are suppose to say, and you don’t know if they are saying what the author wanted them to say either. There are ocasional moments where you read a sentence and you don’t know why it was included. But you’ve read it, and enjoyed it.

And there are moments when the characters don’t quite do it. They seem two-dimensional, but also classical archetypes. I loved them, particularly Treadway and Jacinta, and Thomasina. But they didn’t quite do it all the time. And in those moments when they did, they made the book seem unbalanced – like in the last quarter of the book, when characters other than Wayne seem to become more prominent than they ever deserved. It isn’t really to the book’s detriment though, because you don’t become annoyed by it. Enamoured would be a far better term.

And then there is the ending. Particularly the epilogue. The ending is far more enjoyable then you want. There are roses in it, somehow. And you are not sure where they came from. But from a book that is so repeatedly, gently blasting its reader into knowing how horrible Wayne’s life is – his loneliness, and sadness, and lack of intimacy, and confusion about himself – you come to the sudden happy ending and you give a sigh of relief.

So, somehow all of these weaknesses feed into the novel. You read then and you are puzzled by them, but you enjoy them, and are thankful for them somehow. You have been wooed, either by a fantastic debut novel or by a very clever author who knows how to woo an audience. I hope it is the former.

This novel tells an important story, representative of so many lives in Canada and around the world. The sorrows that Wayne experiences, and the panic and pain of his family, is all very real. And in its poetic portrayal, Kathleen Winter has managed to grasp some hint of that pain in this novel. I am curious though, if many of us will recognize how this story is representative of all of our lives – as it is a story about a gender minority, it runs the risk of becoming representative of a life shared by ‘them’ rather than one experienced by everyone.

And I think that the life that Wayne tells is actually a life shared by everybody in some way.

Wayne had been watching people. He watched men and women who passed him on their way to get pea soup at Shelley’s at lunchtime ro croissants at the new bakery across from the Bank of Montreal. The street smelled of cigarettes, perfume, and coffee, and Wayne saw that the faces, bodies, clothes, and shoes of the men and women who passed him had been divided and thinned. The male or female in them had been both diluted and exaggerated. They were one, extremely so, or they were the other. The women trailed tapered gloves behind them and walked in ludicrous heels, while the men, with their fuzzy sideburns and brown briefcases, looked boring as little beagles out for the same rabbit. You define a tree and you do not see what it is; it becomes its name. It is the same with woman and man. Everywhere Wayne looked there was one or the other, male or female, abandoned by the other. The loneliness of this cracked the street in half. Could the two halves of the street bear to see Wayne walk the fissure and not name him a beast?

Kathleen Winter gets something in this novel, something truly profound in content and presentation. It comes with the highest, though occasionally puzzled, recommendation. Read this book and allow it to affect your understanding of society, others, yourself, and the way that people are as a part of who they were.

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