by Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex is a dense, rich, thought-provoking novel. I was initially put off by its size - a gargantuan 530 pages - and it sat next to my bed reproachfully for several months. But, once I started, the wealth of ideas, the deftness of the writing and the bizarre story made it a great long pleasure of a read.
It begins: '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.' This is the kernel of the story, the autobiography of a hermaphrodite, but it also typifies the style and dynamic of the book. Almost every beautifully-crafted sentence is loaded with paradox, enigma and the weight of history.
Middlesex is, of course, about gender identity and, as it follows the painful transformation of Calliope from beautiful girl baby to Cal, the man, it constantly forces the reader to question what it means to be female or male. But the Middlesex of the title is in fact the house in which Cal grows up. Built as a modernist experiment in suburban living with glass walls and an open plan interior, it is a place 'designed for a new type of human being', conceived out of an optimistic belief in a new open and inclusive society. Ironically, Cal's parents buy it with insurance payments from the Detroit race riots.
Immigration is the other major theme that enriches the narrative of the novel. In the same way that Cal is both male and female and yet, neither, so he is both American and Greek but never entirely at home in either culture. Throughout this story, spanning eight decades, Eugenides threads through historical moments and places, like Korea, Cyprus and Berlin, which have become divided and are no longer one thing or another. At the same time, we are subtly reminded that everything, like the hermaphrodite, contains elements of its otherness.
Apart from being a really good read, it is the layering of meaning that I loved in this novel. Eugenides seems acutely aware of the ambiguous nature of everything. At one point he apologises for the paucity of language to describe emotion - how inadequate the words 'grief' and 'joy' are to express the complexity of people's feelings. I've had trouble finding the words to do justice to this whopping novel, but I would say - don't be put off by its size, read it!