Classic Read - Middlesex

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Issue: 
(368)

Jeffrey Eugenides

"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."

So begins this remarkable book. I first came across Middlesex a few years ago. One of my nieces gave it to me saying she was sure I'd like it. I was not so sure - one of the descriptions inside described the book as a "great Greek-American hermaphrodite epic". While having nothing against Greek-Americans or hermaphrodites I have to admit that neither subject ranked high on my reading wish list. My niece, however, knew rather better than I did and I fell totally in love with the book.

Actually what we have here is an astonishing epic which covers three generations of the Stephanides family beginning in a tiny village in Asia Minor and ending up in Detroit. The story is narrated by Calliope (Cal) Stephanides, the twice-born hermaphrodite quoted at the beginning of the book.

Naturally therefore gender and sexual identity play a huge part in the narrative as Cal struggles throughout her/his young life and beyond into adulthood to resolve major personal dilemmas. The story of that struggle is moving and yet told with great wit. There is much in the book that makes you laugh, just as there is much that is sad. However, the book draws in much wider themes as we see the struggle of Greek-American immigrants against a background of a nation changing with them.

The story starts with Cal's grandparents' life in a tiny village and then witnesses them fleeing from the Turkish invasion of Smyrna, escaping on a ship as the city burns behind them. In the process they embark on an incestuous marriage, and end up in the "land of dreams," America staying with a cousin and her dodgy husband.

We are then taken on a historical voyage of America in general and Detroit in particular. Cal's grandfather Lefty gets a job with the young and bustling Ford Motor Company. In the process we see what life was like in the factory, the driving repetitive work and the harsh conditions. On leaving Ford, Lefty and his wife journey through the experience of Prohibition and the Great Depression.

Elsewhere the book looks at the racial segregation of a deeply racist Detroit. Even though by the time Cal is growing up Detroit is much changed, racism continues to scar the city, as an almost exclusively white police force regards the black population as its enemy.

As tensions grow the book takes us through the Detroit riots of 1967, or the "second American revolution" as the author describes it. The family business is caught up in the centre of the riot area and confirms all Cal's father's racist views, while leading Cal to very different conclusions.

The book continues on a journey of change and discovery, both personal and in the wider world around. At the end we know much more about the Greek-American experience, and about hermaphrodites, but we also know a lot more about the changed face of America. We do so while experiencing a beautifully written masterpiece of storytelling.

Middlesex was first published in 2002