The plot concerns a child born in Canada in 1968, described as a hermaphrodite, though the term we would probably use now is intersex. The woman who delivers the baby, Thomasina, is a key character in the book. Although the baby's gender is assigned as male and he is christened Wayne, Thomasina secretly gives him the additional name of Annabel after her recently-drowned daughter. When her baby is deemed to be a boy, Wayne's mother, Jacinta, feels that she too has lost a daughter, and her grief mirrors that of Thomasina's. Jacinta goes into a slow decline and Thomasina goes travelling to come to terms with her own loss, turning into some kind of free-spirited supply teacher who dips in and out of Wayne's life.
The characters are well described, especially Treadway, Wayne's father, a decent, hard-working man struggling to come to terms with something beyond his experience or understanding. His efforts to shore up Wayne's masculinity are poignant though ill advised.
The book is generally well written, but after a while I began to tire of the Kathleen Winter's faux wisdom and impenetrable philosophical musings.
This is Thomasina when she delivers Jacinta's baby.
`It was as the baby latched on to Jacinta's breast that Thomasina caught sight of something slight, flower-like; one testicle had not descended, but there was something else. She waited the eternal instant that women wait when a horror jumps out at them. It is an instant that men do not use for waiting, an instant that opens a door to life or death. Women look through the opening because something might be alive in there.'
What the ...? There are lots of passages like this. For example this comes at the very end (not a spoiler I hope).
`Only in wind over the land did Treadway find the freedom his son would seek elsewhere.Treadway was a man of Labrador, but his son had left home as daughters and sons do, to seek freedom their fathers do not need to inhabit, for it inhabits the fathers.'
Just a bit too metaphorical for my taste. This new-age tone impinges on the plot providing a few unconvincing episodes. Treadway isn't told that there is an issue with the new baby. After a few days he intuits it using his natural wisdom and one-ness with nature, without even needing to look more closely, let alone give his son a quick once over under the babygrow.
The stress of conflicting responses to their son causes a major fissure in Treadway and Jacinta's marriage, though up until then they were well-enough matched: `His underclothes were of ewe's wool. When they made love she climaxed every time...' Sometimes these little nuggets made it seem like she was channelling Annie Proulx.
Wayne has a confused and troubling adolescence but his naivety is astonishing. He interprets his father's explanation of the facts of life as a penis escaping from a man's pyjamas of its own accord and somehow migrating over the other side of the bed to find the woman's genitals. Maybe this might work for a five year old but not for a child in Year Seven already developing breasts. Also, does his latent femininity have to be portrayed through yearning for beautiful prom dresses? It seemed a bit obvious. Maybe I just think this because those girly longings largely bypassed me when I was a teenager.
This is a sympathetic portrayal of gender variance. I really wanted to like it but its tone defeated me. I am perhaps a bit unfair giving it only three stars but her musings on the human condition were irritating. It could have been an infinitely better book if she had underplayed the Writer-as-Wise-Woman. Its best feature is probably the setting. Winter has a feel for the landscape and people of Labrador. Overall, rewarding but deeply flawed.