Friday, 24 June 2011

CanLit again - Annabel and The Bishop's Man

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

This is a thoughtful and often lyrical investigation into what it means to grow up different from other children. It’s 1968 in Labrador, and Jacinta, at home and surrounded by her female friends, gives birth to a baby who has both male and female characteristics. But only the baby’s parents and a close friend, Thomasina, know it, so it’s straightforward enough for Treadway, the baby’s father, to decide that he’ll be raised as a boy. Wayne grows into a solitary child, close to his mother, but generally comfortable enough with his father, and all is quiet enough until Wayne reaches puberty.

I enjoyed this novel which is, in many ways, as sparse as its Labrador setting. At the end I felt that, if you were prepared to suspend disbelief (and I usually am, as a reader, happy to take a work very much on its own terms) it works well as a study of loneliness: I’m not sure that it really said much about gender ambiguity, except that it makes it difficult to find friends, something we could probably have guessed. Perhaps it’s too delicate, and a few more rough edges in the writing might have made it more immediate, made you care more deeply about the characters. Your heart should be in your mouth at Wayne’s plight, but instead you just drift through, pausing only momentarily to wonder at this or that. When I finished the book I found I was left with a sense of wistfulness and an overall feeling that my emotions had had too easy a ride for the subject matter.

The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

Another slightly anomalous read. This time it was mainly because I quite disliked the main character, the rather prissy Father Duncan MacAskill but, that apart, I was impressed by this 2009 Giller Prize winner. It’s no spoiler to say that the plot turns on the difficult subject of child sexual abuse, and as I read I found myself thinking a good deal on the questions raised: on the church’s attitude to it and failures to address it, on the nature of victimhood, and on religious vocation.
"The night before things started to become unstuck, I actually spent a good hour taking stock of my general situation and concluded that, all things considered, I was in pretty good shape. I was approaching the age of fifty, a psychological threshold only slightly less daunting than death, and found myself not much changed from forty or even thirty. If anything, I was healthier. The last decade of the century, and of the millennium, was shaping up to be less stressful than the eighth — which had been defined by certain events in Central America — and the ninth, burdened as it was by scandals here at home."
Father MacAskill quickly finds the complacency of the opening pages to be misplaced as, not long after he moves to his first actual parish, a young boy he befriends there kills himself. As a result, MacAskill finds himself facing his own demons as well as those of the church he’s served so assiduously. His time as, in essence, inquisitor for the Bishop he admires, the period he spent in Honduras, his childhood in Cape Breton, all carry their attendant pain that he’s avoided dealing with until now.

Despite my dislike of MacAskill’s prissiness, this is muscular writing, born of a tradition of novel writing which I associate with men of a certain generation (Robertson Davies comes to mind). It’s firmly rooted, with an introspection and clarity that roots it in the real world, even when it deals with evasions and avoidances of the truth. The Bishop’s Man does what Annabel fails to: it’s a challenging and serious book, painful at times, but it’s one I’ll be glad to return to. 


  1. Not sure whether my previous attempt to leave a comment worked - anyway:
    As far as I remember, I have only ever read one book that dealt with a Hermaphrodite, "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides. Now, there is a writer I highly recommend - and who I regret does not publish more books more often.

  2. I think there is a third book on the subject of hermaphrodites that I've read a review of recently. A difficult subject, but it doesn't sound as if this book gives much insight.

    The Bishop's Man, however, sounds as if it confronts moral and ethical problems head on. I can imagine that it would be painful to read, but it sounds as if it is worth it.

  3. I loved 'Middlesex' as well. I've caught the odd episode of the current Radio 4 serialisation of 'Annabel' but not enough to know whether or not I'm going to read it. I think it will have to wait for a bit. I have too much else waiting in line at the moment.

  4. 'Annabel' has been getting some mixed reviews. Funny thing is though, the more reviews I read the more compelled I am to read it.

    I also enjoyed 'The Bishop's Man' and thought Duncan MacAskill was a great character study. Kate tells me that Linden MacIntyre will be publishing another book next year; this one told through the eyes of Effie, Duncan's sister ... definitely a book I'll be picking up.