Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

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MiddlesexThis book was recommended to me by a work mate, and when I eventually picked it up I had absolutely no idea, whatsoever, what it was about. I didn’t even read the blurb on the back – nothing. A forgivable mistake, then, when I assumed from the title and cover that it was going to be some historical novel about Middlesex, England.  How wrong was I!

According to Eugenides, some readers have thrown Middlesex across the room out of sheer disgust. I’m a bit baffled by this, as their concern seems to be that the grandparents of the central character and narrator, Cal (originally Callie), were incestuous – brother and sister, but also third cousins. How does this add to the plot, people ask? Well, considering that Cal is an hermaphrodite as a result of his 5-Alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, caused by a recessive genetic mutation as a result of inbreeding, wouldn’t it seem obvious?

Middlesex is an ingenious story, and Eugenides’ skill as an author is remarkable: little wonder he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Touching on many themes, cramming in over fifty years of detailed history across three generations, and bringing to the fore a topic most authors wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, Eugenides pulls the wool over the reader’s eyes with a hint of magical realism, or narrative trickery that only the most pernickety of readers would even question.

The entire novel is narrated by Cal, but Cal is an unreliable narrator, for not only is he divulging to the reader his own thoughts and actions, but he is also imparting to us the thoughts and rationales of the other characters in the story. Such is Eugenides skill that he makes this seem perfectly normal, reasonable, and without us feeling manipulated or of having had our legs pulled.

Cal is narrating the story as an adult male living in Berlin, but as he says at the beginning, he was born twice: first as a girl and then at the age of 14, as a boy. As Eugenides so effortlessly works and feels his way into the psyche of both Cal and Callie and, subsequently, the other characters, the remarkable story unfolds and we are carried cinematically through the blossoming of the young and forbidden love of Lefty and Desdemona, Cal’s grandparents, and their fleeing from the small Greek village of Smyrna to smog-filled Detroit. We pass through the birth of their own children and their children’s children, observers along the way of the historical events weaving in and out of the story – Prohibition, the Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights’ movement. All of this being essential background for how Cal came to be Cal and as an explanation of the social and cultural influences on his life.

Eugenide’s personable characters; the humour he imparts through them; the engaging themes of nature versus nurture; gender identity; the American dream, and assimilation all contribute to this wonderful, complex, eccentric, conglomeration of a novel. I loved it.

Rosemary

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