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Gender reversal explored in fiction

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By Kathleen Winter

Anansi, 461 pages, $33

LIKE Yann Martel's Self or Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Kathleen Winter's debut novel explores the notion of gender reversal. But unlike these two esteemed writers, Winter accomplishes her task without ever resorting to magic.

In this remarkably lucid and forthright story, we follow the fortunes of Wayne, an endearingly earnest hermaphrodite, born in a remote fishing community in Labrador in the late '60s.

Wayne's father, Treadway, is a half-Innu trapper, a gentle taciturn stoic who loves dogs, hard work and the wild outdoors. Wayne's mother Jacinta is "from away" -- a schoolteacher from St. John's who came for work and stayed for love.

The only other person privy to Wayne's condition is Jacinta's friend, Thomasina, who attended at Wayne's birth. When Jacinta worries about what to do, how to fix her child, Thomasina reassures her. "That baby is all right the way it is. There's enough room in this world."

Treadway, however, cannot accept the "frightening ambiguity" of the baby's state and insists on seeking medical intervention to make the child a boy. He does his best to instil in the child a sense of masculinity, yet as Wayne matures, Treadway's compassion and openness to accept his child as he/she is is utterly breathtaking.

Winter, sister of writer Michael Winter, was born in England, grew up in Newfoundland and currently resides in Montreal. She garnered much critical acclaim for boYs, her 2007 collection of short stories.

It is an astounding achievement that she has managed to craft a central character who is neither male nor female; Wayne's voice is quite consistently both. We come to long, with Wayne's mother, for the existence -- and public acceptance -- of someone who can embody both genders, walk in both worlds at once.

The series of events leading up to Wayne's discovery of the truth of his body, a truth that has been kept from him, are wonderfully exhilarating.

It resonates with the sense we all share that there is hidden within each of us a secret and remarkable self that we must keep inside, though we yearn to expose it.

Thomasina forms a special bond with Wayne, taking on the "cool aunt" persona. She quietly nurtures his female side while ministering to her own grief, secretly calling him Annabel after the daughter she's lost.

When she leaves their tiny village to travel, Thomasina sends Wayne postcards picturing magnificent bridges from around the world. The bridge becomes a metaphor for Wayne's "one foot on either shore" condition.

In Winter's deft hands, Labrador becomes a magical land of mystical wildlife and magnetic earth. The smells of the mosses and the berries "smelling more of regret than sweetness" give breath to the world.

And in the centre of this world, in the interior of Labrador, Winter describes a lake that feeds two rivers flowing in opposite directions. The lake has been given a name by the mapmakers, but its real name, the one given to it by the people who live in the interior, is a secret that no one knows.

Finely observed detail and gut-wrenching honesty, together with some rich characters and a perfectly rendered world, make Annabel a rare treat, and Winter a welcome new voice in Canadian writing.

Debbie Patterson is a playwright, director and actor living in Winnipeg.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2010 H9

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