Monday 3 September 2007

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

In England, Middlesex is a county just outside London which contains Heathrow airport, the busiest airport in the world, which just happens to be less than 15 miles from my home. When Oprah named this book for her book of the month club, I thought cool, it's a book about the airport. And then I thought better. Why would Oprah be recommending what could only be a very dull historical fact regurgitation about the rise of one of the oldest, most rundown, worst airports in the world?

I bought the book. Oprah is rarely wrong.

And she wasn't this time. Middlesex isn't about Heathrow airport. Thank God! But it is about an hermaphrodite. Oh dear!

The book starts out going back 3 generations to introduce the ancestors of the main character, Calliope Stephanides. This attempts to provide a factual scientific and understandable answer to the question of how do these things happen. There is quite a long bit in the middle about Calli's grandfather and father that I don't believe ultimately contributes to the primary of the purpose but certainly makes the book more fun to read.

I envy the development of these characters. Each one is almost but not quite a caricature, taken a step further and the book would have been unbelievable as it drifted into being a cartoon. Not not as far, the book would have been dull and superficial. The depth and the integrity of these characters made my heart ache for them. All of them. They all fought demons. An author who can show that much attention to each and every person in their book is a great author indeed.

But most fascinating was Calliope. Prior to reading this book, I had little more than a sketchy idea of what it meant to be a hermaphrodite. I didn't understand the physical or biological parts of it. I didn't understand how it happened and what the effects were. I even suspected it was not entirely a true story but more one of those urban myths that you get chain emails about.

But this book made it real without being sensational or condescending. It never handled the subject as exploitative. The book is a fascinating and sensitive introduction to the world of sexual gender. And what it means when you are a bit of both making you absolutely neither.

The narration point of view jumps around a bit. Sometimes you are Calli and sometimes you are outside looking in. All points of view of beautifully written and more than once I read and reread a passage because it just took my breath away and I wanted to be astonished again.

The ending leaves you with a lot of think about in regards to nature vs nurture, not unlike We Need To Talk About Kevin (another one of my favourite novels). but the ending is brilliant. it doesn't answer the questions but give us a way forward. Just like life.

Highly recommended! Jeffrey Eugenides last novel, The Virgin Suicides, was written about 10-15 years ago I reckon. Let's hope it doesn't take him that long to write his next one.

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