Canada Reads is long over, but I wanted to take a moment to write down my thoughts on Annabel, by Kathleen Winter.
I think this one should have won. After listening to the first few days of the debates, I could tell that The Orenda was going to be the obvious winner, and I think it was certainly one of the strongest books all around, but I also felt like it didn’t bring anything really new to the table. Three Day Road, also by Joseph Boyden, is one of my favourite books, and I’ve only skimmed through Through Black Spruce, but all three of these books are quite similar. They’re good, don’t get me wrong (though The Orenda certainly did have some things that annoyed me), but they all check the same boxes.
Meanwhile Annabel is not like something I’ve ever read before, and I think it opened up new conversations. Not necessarily more or less important ones, but I think it does more to broaden the scope of what people are thinking about. And that, in a way, is what this year’s theme was about. You “change Canada” by giving people new perspectives on issues they maybe haven’t considered before.
Annabel took heat from one panelist (I forget which) mostly for using the term “hermaphrodite” instead of “intersex”, and because he didn’t think the pregnancy was realistic. I think both of these are unfair. You don’t need to criticize a book set several decades ago for using the term “hermaphrodite” any more than you do a book about slavery for using “negro”. As for pregnancy, I don’t see it as an issue. It’s a messy enough area that I don’t think you can dismiss it as impossible (and throw out the entire book because of it). Intersex people aren’t automatically infertile, and the book doesn’t depict a case where an intersex person successfully auto-impregnates themselves. There are enough varieties and degrees of being intersex that each situation is going to be very different. Maybe it is practically impossible, but is that really important in a fiction novel that uses it as a way to further develop its characters?
I’m not saying the book is flawless, I’m just saying I don’t think those details count against it.