Middlesex is a rare and curious literary artefact. I can think of only one other book in which a first-person narrator describes, as if an eyewitness, the action that takes place before his or her birth. In Tristram Shandy, we’re four chapters in before Tristram is born and, subsequently, unmanned by an unmentionable accident involving a sash window. Calliope Stephanides, the narrator of Middlesex, is not born until nearly halfway through her story, although sexual confusion comes to her without the need for a sash window. The parallel holds. In character, Middlesex belongs more to the eighteenth century than the twenty-first: it is a marvellous, quirky and moving entertainment, with the narrative energy of Defoe and the gamesomeness of Sterne.
Although neither her parents nor the doctor attending her birth notice it, Calliope is a hermaphrodite – the result of a recessive gene that runs through her family and whose progress around the world she traces through the history preceding her birth. The backdrop to her story is a rambling