Anticipated debut could be big novel in 2010

Chad Pelley
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Book Review

Kathleen Winter is no stranger to writing, in any form. She has written for television and is well-known for her former weekly column, Naturally, in The Telegram. Her last book, "boYs," a vibrant collection of short stories, won the prestigious Winterset Award and the Metcalfe-Rooke Award. "Annabel" is her debut novel.

"Annabel" tells the story of a child who is born both male and female, in the hyper-male hunting culture of 1960s Labrador. Surgically altered at birth and given the name Wayne, only three people know his secret: his mother, his father and a trusted neighbour. But as Wayne approaches adulthood, as his identity strives to lay a foundation, the woman literally buried inside of him, Annabel, refuses to be forgotten.

Kathleen Winter is no stranger to writing, in any form. She has written for television and is well-known for her former weekly column, Naturally, in The Telegram. Her last book, "boYs," a vibrant collection of short stories, won the prestigious Winterset Award and the Metcalfe-Rooke Award. "Annabel" is her debut novel.

"Annabel" tells the story of a child who is born both male and female, in the hyper-male hunting culture of 1960s Labrador. Surgically altered at birth and given the name Wayne, only three people know his secret: his mother, his father and a trusted neighbour. But as Wayne approaches adulthood, as his identity strives to lay a foundation, the woman literally buried inside of him, Annabel, refuses to be forgotten.

This is the story of a "son" who wants to swim in an orange bathing suit, not trunks. It is the story of a mother who has to deny her son, who could have been her daughter, that one, simple wish, and live with that denial. It is the story of a wife who loves her husband, but not wholly enough to stop longing for her life back in St. John's, and who she could be. It is the story of a Labrador man whose ability to connect with the natural world exceeds his ability to connect with his family, despite his genuinely doing what he thinks is right by them: providing for his wife and forcing a maleness on Wayne, but never without empathy, admitted hypocrisy, or guilt.

It is just as much a novel about the characters as it is about their predicament, and Winter can channel her varied characters masterfully, switching points of view between her five characters as they encase themselves in private worlds. In showing us all angles of her five main characters, from inside and out, whether it was her intention or just gifted writing, she's showing us the humanity that overrides gender and age, and the basic human traits and desires that unite us all.

"Annabel" is also an evocative portraiture of ethereal Labrador. Winter's writing reaches a hand out of those pages and hauls her reader down into an authentic Labrador you'll feel like you know by sight, smell, sound and experience. You'll see its desolation and its draw, depending on the character she channeling.

"The village of Croydon Harbour, on the southeast Labrador coast, has that magnetic earth all Labrador shares. You sense a striation, a pulse, as the land drinks light and emits vibration ... the visitor has to be an open circuit, available to the power coming off the land."

Her skill in this regard is crucial, because setting plays a big role in how these characters are shaped or misshapen, isolated or liberated, together or alone.

Her writing is a mesmerizing combination of crisp language, deep empathy for her well-wrought characters, and a world-savvy wisdom. She delivers her story with a gracefulness that matches the mystique of Labrador and the tenderness required to carry this story. "Annabel" is an unforgettable novel of struggles, personal and inter-personal, and Winter's empathetic voice does them justice in a way that connects reader to story. Destined to be one of the biggest novels out of Newfoundland this year, this is a story of isolation and a communication breakdown that breaks a family down, and breaks the reader down along with them.

Chad Pelley is an award-winning writer from St. John's, and the founder of saltyink.com.

Geographic location: Newfoundland, The Telegram, St. John's Croydon Harbour

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