As I sit down to write this post, I don’t have my copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex to hand. This is a shame, because as I was reading Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, Annabel, it was difficult not to recall that Greek-American epic. Both these novels have at their centre a hermaphrodite, and both are concurrently concerned with interstitial spaces, that section of a Venn diagram where something is also that other something. What both writers find strange about these spaces, though, is that we, as humans, are so often led to insist they do not exist – or at the very least demand that they pick one side or the other.
In a recent article in the LRB, Hilary and Steven Rose dealt summarily with attempts to prise apart the genders. “The medical world regards the condition [of congenital adrenal hyperplasia] as a profound sexual and personal problem for the child and its family, which medicine should help normalise.” The authors resist scare quotes. “Confident that there are two sexes, and two sexes only, clinicians seek objective criteria by which to assign the child to its ‘true’ sex.” Oops, no they don’t. “Thus the size of the penis helps determine whether the infant should be designated male of female.” Here’s a scene from Annabel:
“It’s a tiny ruler.”
“It is. See?” He pointed to a mark three-quarters of the way down the phalometer. “If the penis reaches of exceeds this length, we consider it a real penis. If it doesn’t meet this measurement, it is considered a clitoris.”
Jacinta strained to read the tiny marks. “One point five centimetres?”
“What happens if it’s less than that?”
“When a phallus is less than one point five centimetres, give or take seven hundredths of a centimetre – ”
“Yes. When it’s less than that, we remove the presentation of male aspects and later, during adolescence, we sculpt the female aspects.”
“What if it’s right in the middle? Right straight, smack dab down the precise centre? One point five centimetres with no seven hundredths.”
“Then we make an educated guess.” [pg. 51]
Thus is the logic which defines Annabel’s life. Though the titular character, then, Annabel is for almost the entire length of the novel subsumed within the boy that is measured up within weeks of the birth to Jacinta and Treadway Blake of a baby. They are inhabitants of the remote Labrador Coast village of Croyden Harbour. They name him Wayne, and Annabel is his story. Though Wayne’s mother is sceptical of the doctors, and though she strives to remind Wayne in small ways of his latent feminine side, his father, a thoughtful but conservative trapper, has a more bifurcated view of the world. “We’re in a world,” opines Thomasina, a friend of Jacinta’s but not of Treadway’s, “where every person, or plant, or animal, or any entity whatsoever, has an explanatory ticket on it.” [pg. 203] Treadway is very much a product of that world, and he can see – perhaps has – no real way out of it.
It is to Winter’s credit that she attempts a sympathetic portrayal of Treadway, and indeed of every character in the book. Ultimately, however, Annabel is less expansive and ambitious than Middlesex – which was too free-ranging and uncontained (sometimes to its detriment) to aim for anything like a message in the way this novel does. So though we read that Treadway studies poetry in his remote hunting lodge whilst away on long trips, and though one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book is when he attempts to stage, with the help of his truck-driving friends, a manly, vehicular ballet for his worryingly artistic son only for it to be rejected, Treadway remains the plain personification of a blinkered, restrictive worldview.
Winter makes her job easier by setting Annabel in the remote confines of a tiny community. She time and again emphasises this isolation of spirit: “if you ran out of dreams or lost them, there was no silver screen to find them for you again or to whisper you in the direction of new ones. You were on your own in Croyden Harbour. In the realm of imagination you were left to your own devices.” [pg. 56] Perhaps this is an interesting story, maybe a more interesting one than a hermaphrodite being born in a more heterodox metropolis; but it is also a flatter one, in which the free spirit of Thomasina, who loses her husband and own daughter early on and resolves to travel the world in order to discover herself, is pitched against a culture which distrusts outside influence and prescribes Jacinta Valium when she no longer feels the urge to pleasure her husband sexually. Treadway may not be a villain, but, like Croyden Harbour, he is so thoroughly unable to be anything but wrong that it barely matters. The novel’s trajectory is crystal clear. It is one of escape.
The hidden desires – the hidden selves – of women are thus an over-riding theme. “If you could see into houses all over St John’s,” Wayne’s old headteacher, whom he has unjustly remembered as a sort of humourless dragon after he has moved to his nearest city, “and all over Newfoundland for that matter, and while we’re at it, all over the world, I suppose, you’d see women dancing by themselves.” [pg. 342] Placing Annabel ‘inside’ Wayne thus renders she and him a grand sort of metaphor, which is something of a shame. There’s a simplistic quality to all this which makes the worthy message – “I wouldn’t call what you have a disorder,” a sympathetic doctor tells Wayne. “I’d call it a different order” [pg. 208] – feel a little pat, even a little self-satisfied.
It’s not like Annabel doesn’t do some things well: it observes people, and in particular their environments, rather smartly (Winter lived in St John’s for many years); some of its vignettes, and some of its minor characters, such as Wayne’s friend Wally, a promising young singer who overcomes her damaged vocal cords, are memorable; and most importantly Winter does some excellent work in dealing with Wayne’s adolescence – the reader gets an at times quite visceral sense of what it means not to understand your own body, or indeed your own psyche (again, an experience quite common to many adolescents and in some senses merely magnified for exemplary purposes by the novel). It’s just that, next to the subtlety and resonance of the prose of Great House, or even the elusive allusiveness of The Tiger’s Wife, this book feels less complex, even where more direct. It feels more like Room – a difficult subject rather too carefully presented. The Orange Prize can reward only one or other approach, and I have my own preferences.
This leaves just Aminatta Forna and Emma Henderson for me prior to the June 8th announcement…