Kathleen Winter’s Annabel
House of Anansi, 2010

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

Like Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, it’s impossible to imagine Kathleen Winter’s Annabel being set anywhere other than the landscape therein.

“In Croyden Harbour human life came second to the life of the big land, and no one seemed to mind. No one minded being an extra in the land’s story.”

But although the characters in this debut novel might be extras in the land’s story, they are at the heart of the story that Kathleen Winter is telling.

Their connection with the land is irrefutable, however. They feel — albeit to varying degrees — the magnetic pull that is described in Annabel’s opening pages.

“A traveller can come to Labrador and feel its magnetic energy or not feel it. There has to be a question in the person. The visitor has to be an open circuit, available to the power coming off the land, and not everybody is.”

A specific passage that is at the heart of the story is rooted in this connection to the land. What is at Treadway’s centre is, at first, a certainty but, as time passes in the story, it becomes more about questioning than answering.

“Home from the trapline, recovered from all loneliness, Treadway loved his wife because he has promised he would. But the centre of the wilderness called him, and he loved that centre more than any promise. That wild centre was a state of mind, but it had a geographical point as well.”

Treadway is a fascinating character. The way that he can communicate with the land and many of the creatures that inhabit it appears to be at odds with his difficulties connecting with his wife, Jacinta, and with their child.

“He became unreachable but his body spoke, and Jacinta hated this. She wanted words to come out of his mouth but they came out of his bones.”

Much of this novel is scenic and the pages turn quickly in these sections, but the majority of the novel is about what is inside, the internal drama of being.

“Everyone was always becoming and unbecoming.” (This is one of my favourites lines, simple but profound.)

SOURCE: Peter Helm, Canadian Tourism Commission

In many ways, Treadway appears to be a static character. As open as he is to the power of the land, to the centre of the wilderness, he wants some questions definitively answered. He doesn’t want people to become and unbecome: he wants them to be. His intuitive understanding of the world around him demands that.

“He felt the secret in the house exactly as he felt the presence of a white ptarmigan behind him in the snow, and he understood the secret’s details, its identity, as easily as he would know the bird was a white ptarmigan before he turned around and saw it. He knew his baby had both a boy’s and a girl’s identity, and he knew a decision had to be made.”

His difficulties accepting ambiguity in his child are immediately and readily recognizable. Jacinta is willing to allow the boy’s and girl’s identity to simply ‘be’, but she acknowledges that that would not be uncomplicated, and she has no solution to offer.

“Whenever she imagined her child, grown up without interference from a judgemental world, she imagine its male and female halves as complementing each other, and as being secretly, almost magically powerful. It was the growing up part she did not want to imagine — harm from the cruel reactions of people who do not want to understand.”

It’s this threat of harm  — this judgemental world — which compels Treadway to behave the way that he does with his child. He maintains the secret, denies the questions, even as he reaches for the centre.

“It was always the same argument in any one of a thousand disguises. The one about how to act like a real boy. The hardest part of it for her was knowing that Wayne had no idea his father stood against his own son out of fear.”

But the male and female halves of the child, the boy’s and girl’s identity: they become and unbecome. At times it is a beautiful and, at times, a cruel process. Ultimately Treadway and Jacinta are sidelined: this is Wayne’s story, Annabel’s story.

“He could not reach any of the people he should have been close to. His father spent more time than ever in the bush. His mother sat for hours at a time in her kitchen, crocheting or doing nothing at all.”

At time the loneliness is overwhelming. But there are moments of connection and the characters of Wallis (Wally) and Thomasina are fundamentally important in Wayne’s/Annabel’s quest to find a voice and to build a bridge between inner selves (respectively).

The Ponte Vecchio bridge, which Thomasina discovers on her travels, and shares via a postcard to the child with two selves offers a coping mechanism, which is pursued literally and figuratively. Entire lives are contained in, and develop in and unfold upon, such a bridge. (You can see a lovely photograph of it by Georgio Grande here.)

To say more about these specific relationships would involve spoilers, but just as the novel seems to demand its Labrador setting, the journey of Wayne and Annabel seems to require these two characters, who are, simultaneously, peripheral and essential.

Ultimately I think this novel is written for readers who are comfortable with questions (those who want a tidy resolution, who want all their questions answered will be disappointed). But for a reader, a traveller, with an open circuit, the centre of the wilderness in Annabel is beautifully and intelligently crafted.

Given the incredible outpouring of support for this debut novel, it’s easy to imagine being disappointed by it, but this is the kind of novel that reaffirms a reader’s faith in literary awards. Annabel might well have slipped through the literary cracks, despite its publishing house’s reputation for quality, but the accolades and attention Kathleen Winter’s novel has received is well-deserved indeed.

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 2 of 20 (Kathleen Winter)

Originality Wayne’s/Annabel’s character at heart of the narrative
Readability Somewhat scenic, but with a measured, reflective tone
Author’s voice Simply lyrical, wise
Narrative structure Chronological, occasional shift in perspective
Gaffes None spotted
Expectations Very high: for which award has this book NOT been nominated?