Wow. What a fantastic, unique novel. There's a blurb on the back of my library copy that recommends Annabel to "fans of Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex", and while the comparison is apt, this is a wholly different novel that stands on its own.
The story takes place in a small hunting town in Labrador, Newfoundland. It's a harsh society with rigid gender roles, where the men spend six months of the year living in isolated hunting cabins on the traplines and women give birth in their bathtubs at home and go right back to their duties the next day. In one of these bathtubs, an intersex child is born. The baby born to Treadway and Jacinta Blake is a "true hermaphrodite", possessing both male and female genitalia: one ovary, one testicle, a vagina, either a small penis or large clitoris, just the right size so as to be ambiguous. Faced with this unexpected dilemma, the family makes the difficult decision to raise the baby as a boy and arrange for a doctor to perform "normalizing" surgery. Baby Wayne gets his vagina sewn up and everyone hopes the whole affair is behind them. But it's pretty hard for a secret like that to stay hushed up, especially in such a small town. Puberty is hard enough for those whose bodies change according to typical biology, and it's something else entirely for those who don't conform to gender norms, as Kathleen Winter explores.
This was beautifully written and an absolute pleasure to read, which is surprising given the subject matter. There are definitely difficult, uncomfortable parts, and I cried more than once. I also had slight suspension of disbelief issues about one plot point: that whole auto-fertilization thing. Even with the anatomy Wayne is described as having in the book, it seems extremely far-fetched to me. For that, I think I would need to revisit Anne Fausto-Sterling's fantastic nonfiction, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality.
There's a strange innocence in this book, in the way it breaks your heart and then warms it again. The characters are real, flawed yet completely sympathetic. Even Treadway, steadfast in his role as the harsh father figure, punishing Wayne for things he does that may be seen as too "feminine"... you can tell he does this out of love and because he knows that the world will be even harsher to someone who doesn't fit into its view of normality. His growth as a character is amazing to watch and was one of my favorite elements of the story.
This was really a fascinating study of the fluidity of gender. From the research I've done, it seems that intersex conditions may occur in up to 1% of births, depending on what studies you cite and what definition of "intersex" you use, since there's quite a spectrum of anomalies falling under that umbrella. For what is obviously not such a rare condition, it's surprising to me that there aren't more books out there dealing with this subject. While Annabel does it well, it's also just a great coming of age story.