Many years ago, in the midst of my nurse training, I had done a stint of night duty and come back on duty after days off. It was always interesting to see which babies had gone home and who the new admissions were, because this being Great Ormond Street you could always rely on the diagnoses being something out of the ordinary. I feel sure it's quite different now, but back in the early 1970s, with babies being admitted from around the country and around the world, it wasn't always possible for parents to be resident and so in many ways us nurses stood in for them. It was no hardship. We'd cuddle and coo with the babies, play with them, talk to them and read to them, and I've been known to sing to one or two as well and generally we loved them dearly. Sometimes we were their only physical contact so it was considered an all-important aspect of the job especially given that all babies under a year were nursed in single cubicles.
Peter (name changed) was one such baby, several months old and who had been admitted with something, I can't recall what, and as an aside we also knew that he had what was then known as ambiguous genitalia. The 'it's a boy' decision had been made by the midwife and that was that and we all loved him to bits, so imagine my surprise when I walked back on the ward after those days off to be told that Peter had gone home, but he'd gone home as Petra. And that was the end of it really as far as I was concerned, it had all happened while I'd been off duty, we never saw Petra again, or her parents and I hadn't really given any of that another thought until I read Kathleen Winter's Orange long-listed novel Annabel. Then almost forty years on I realised that what had been an ending for me may just have been the beginning for that family.
Annabel is the story of the only child, born to Treadwell and Jacinta Blake in 1968 (and Kathleen Winter's timing for this novel feels carefully chosen) gentle people both, and residents of a remote coastal area of Labrador in the far north-east of Canada, where Treadwell makes his living from the traplines and hunting whilst Jacinta has been a teacher in a nearby school. Family friend Thomasina, whose husband, and daughter have recently died in a tragic accident, is present with Jacinta at the birth and she is initially the only one who shares the secret with her ... that the baby seems to be neither boy nor girl. They evade the truth with Treadwell who eventually, sensing that all is not as it seems with the baby, and deducing more from what is not said than what is, makes the decision that he and Jacinta have a son.
It was at this point that I first started to think about baby Petra after all these years, because what becomes immediately evident in Kathleen Winter's telling of Annabel is the bereavement and sense of loss and grief that Jacinta suffers in the aftermath of Treadwell's decision. Jacinta has effectively been deprived of a daughter, and slowly but inexorably this will be the undoing of the very fabric of her soul, there is much sadness to come.
'There was a mirror on the wall and Jacinta could see both their faces in it. She realised that of the two, her own had no strength left, while Thomasina's held reserves...
'If a stranger came here now' Jacinta said, ' they would would guess I was the one who had lost a man and a daughter.'
'You won't lose Treadway unless you want to lose him. Treadway is a husband for life.'
'But it looks to me like I'm not the only one who had lost a daughter.'
'I've always felt,' Jacinta said, 'that daughter is a beautiful word.'
And suddenly I realised that I had never before considered the impact on Petra's parents back in the early 1970s when I doubt there was much counsellling or support to help them cope with such a momentous change...when you've bonded with a son for several months, how do you then bond with a daughter.
Kathleen Winter's Labradorian location demands a certain set of rules for living and surviving because this is a land that dominates, it is harsh, unforgiving and to be respected. Now I haven't flown over that many places but I have flown over Labrador and it seeemed like hours and hours of this view, so I had a keen sense of that in mind as I read.
And one of those rules for survival is that the men hunt and shoot and fish, so it is into this macho culture that Treadway introduces Wayne, but in the process Wayne becomes the dearest of children and here Kathleen Winter excels. Now whilst not wanting to be critical of any other book on the Orange long list that utilises the voice of a child, (but can you tell that my third and final attempt with Room has failed) Kathleen Winter achieves hers with no recourse to more overt devices like age-related speech patterns, preferring to concentrate instead on a steady and harmonious stave of dialogue and rapport between her characters that pays enormous attention to the smallest detail, thus allowing the reader to invest it with the heart-wrenching grace notes which create the perfect childs' voice.
There are countless pivotal emotional moments in the book and none more so than when, much to Treadway's discomfort, Wayne shows a keen interest in the girl-only sport of synchronised swimming whilst watching the Russian team on television. There follows a lengthy conversation between Wayne and his parents with Treadway trying to persuade him to watch hockey and ending in this exchange with Wayne and the hapless Jacinta who realises exactly what is happening...
'Because I really, really, really, really, really, really -'
' - want a bathing suit like Elizaveta Kirilovna's. More than anything else in the world.'
and the next day the conversation carries on with Jacinta over breakfast...
'I wish I was her.'
...' you can't go on wishing that Wayne.'
'But I do. I wish it. I would be so good at that. If we had a pool. Maybe we could get a pool. Some people have pools in their backyards. They have them in the catalogue. How do they get the water so blue?'
and so it goes on..
'Would it be alright if I got a really nice bathing suit like Elizaveta Kirilovna's, instead of swimming trunks?
'Boys don't wear them?'
'They could, if people would let them.'
'But people won't?'
'Even if I wore it when no one was looking?'
'I don't know about that, Wayne, I don't think so.'
'Would you let me?' He gave her a fierce little look that broke her heart. ' I know Dad wouldn't let me. But would you? You understand, don't you Mommy? '
And dear reader, be warned, your heart might break too and not just for Wayne but for Jacinta and Treadwell as well.
As Wayne moves into adolescence... well I'm not going to say much more beyond telling you that I read Annabel in two days thus breaking all my rules about taking time with my reading and having 'thinking rests', and I can't tell you how much this book has filled my thoughts since. Suffice to say it's clear that with such a blurred and confused sense of self and increasing loneliness and isolation there will be trials ahead for Wayne and his family. Imagery of bridges between Wayne's two selves prevail in Kathleen Winter's narrative and she explores every possible corner of the very clever scenario she has created... about lies and secrets, about gender and body image and society's attitudes towards difference, about shame and abuse and ultimately about being true to yourself and being the person you have to be.
With few exceptions I only write about books I've loved here and as you know by now that always incorporates my highly subjective take on the book as an experience as much as about the content, whilst feeling I must then leave you to make up your own minds about whether you decide to read it or not and with no special pleading... but just occasionally I think I have to beg and grovel and say 'pleeeeeeeeeeeease don't miss Annabel' . It will be in my top reads of 2011 no matter how many good books follow.
As you can imagine, I am very much hoping to see this on tomorrow's Orange Prize short list and as an afterthought which speaks volumes to me about Kathleen Winter herself, just how often do you read in the author's acknowledgements, in amongst thanking the world, its mother and the dog for being there, the washing machine repair man for the plot idea, the creative writing group friends for telling you like it is and then the bit about all the mistakes are entirely of my own making etc... well how often do you read the very simple words that Kathleen Winter has added...
'And thank you, dear reader.'