Hazel McHaffie


Neither male nor female, bond nor free

It’s a long time since I read my last (and until now, only) novel about hermaphroditism: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. MiddlesexPerfect title, huh? But I loved that, so when I saw that another one on the subject had come out this year, it went straight onto my wish list. It’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter. A brave subject for any author to tackle, never mind as a debut novel. And it became my second read on a Kindle.

Annabel is set principally in the wild wastes of Labrador, populated by self-sufficient trappers and the women they leave behind. Kathleen Winter’s descriptions are amazingly evocative of a 1960s Canadian landscape and a way of life far removed from 21st century life in the central belt of Scotland.

AnnabelThe rather old fashioned, sedate prose seems to fit with the lives of these families. Restrained and economical. Caught in a time warp. Veiled references to ambiguity and its consequences, tucked into all sorts of corners and margins of the text – in descriptions of places and people, in experiences urban and rural, in relation to the psychological as well as the physical dimensions of its characters – reflect the ambiguity attached to the subject matter.

Treadway Blake is a silent, introverted but well-read trapper, more at ease in the wilderness than at the hearth. When he eventually finds out his firstborn child is ‘neither a son nor a daughter but both’ his decision is clear: ‘He’s going to be a boy. I’m going to call him Wayne, after his grandfather. We’ll get the doctor in and we’ll see.

Jacinta, his wife, is a city girl at heart, who is doing her best to adjust to the deprivations and restrictions of life as a trapper’s left-behind girl. Her maternal love accepts her child as he/she is; she is content to leave well alone, to let Wayne grow up ‘without interference from a judgemental world’; the two complementary halves giving him/her extra power, unusual sensitivity.

I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the story so I won’t give any more of the plot-line away but suffice it to say that it’s a tender and sympathetic tale, rather slow-paced but insightful. Much of it captures the normal mundane everydayness of life in a backwater in the 60s, but it also contains quite horrifying developments and experiences in Wayne’s life which shocked me into thinking in a different way about this complex topic.

Overall I felt I had a better sense of the confusion and consequences of gender ambiguity after reading it. And yet, there was no sense of the issue dominating the narrative.  And you know how this is an abiding concern of mine.

So if you’re looking for something different, something that will be discomforting at times, heartening at others, but will make you think, then this is one for your Kindle or bookshelves.

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed this week’s post is going out early. Next week it’ll be late. Explanations to follow in due course. Plus the latest developments in my attempts to convert my backlist to ebooks.

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Generosity and magic …

A friend of mine (now in her nineties) used to regularly cook drop scones (alias griddle pancakes) for our charity table at church. But sadly now the task is beyond her. Last week I visited her at home and to my astonishment, she handed me her precious griddle and her secret recipe.

I told her I devoutly hoped her magic was well embedded in the griddle because this particular culinary delight was not in my normal repertoire … well, it wasn’t then. But with a precious gift like this it feels incumbent on me to keep my side of the contract, so I’ve had a couple of stabs and been agreeably surprised by the results (although DJ says they’re definitely more anaemic than they should be). I guess it’ll take a bit of tweaking to get the balance of heat and time and consistency exactly right.

But in the process of all this beating and turning and tasting it occurred to me that authors bequeath us something of their skills and magic all the time, don’t they? Whenever we devour their goodies we can taste and analyse and mimic and learn from them even without knowing them personally; no special permission required.

I was reading a marvellous novel by Jeffery Eugenides at the time. MiddlesexMiddlesex tells the story of Calliope Stephanides who is an hermaphrodite (intersex is the preferred term nowadays), and starts with: ‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.’ Brilliant hook. A curiously topical choice of reading as it turned out, given this week’s verdict on the gender tests for the South African athlete, Caster Semenya.

When I was a midwife (about a hundred years ago) I delivered babies with ambiguous genitalia and agonised with the parents. What’s the first question everyone asks? Is it a boy or a girl? Imagine having to say, We don’t know. But as far as I’m aware, I’ve never encountered anyone with both male and female organs. And I knew precious little about the condition before I read this book.

Middlesex (neat title, eh?) explores the genetics, psychology, physiology, relationships, exploitation … oh, and so much more, in a wonderfully entertaining but thought-provoking tale. It deservedly won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, in my opinion. I was gripped, but I also learned so much along the way. And Eugenides did all the slog, all the research, all the experimenting, so I can have it handed to me on a gold-rimmed platter. How generous is that?


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