Hazel McHaffie

Jeffery Eugenides

Generosity and magic …

A friend of mine (now in her nineties) used to regularly cook drop scones (alias griddle pancakes) for our charity table at church. But sadly now the task is beyond her. Last week I visited her at home and to my astonishment, she handed me her precious griddle and her secret recipe.

I told her I devoutly hoped her magic was well embedded in the griddle because this particular culinary delight was not in my normal repertoire … well, it wasn’t then. But with a precious gift like this it feels incumbent on me to keep my side of the contract, so I’ve had a couple of stabs and been agreeably surprised by the results (although DJ says they’re definitely more anaemic than they should be). I guess it’ll take a bit of tweaking to get the balance of heat and time and consistency exactly right.

But in the process of all this beating and turning and tasting it occurred to me that authors bequeath us something of their skills and magic all the time, don’t they? Whenever we devour their goodies we can taste and analyse and mimic and learn from them even without knowing them personally; no special permission required.

I was reading a marvellous novel by Jeffery Eugenides at the time. MiddlesexMiddlesex tells the story of Calliope Stephanides who is an hermaphrodite (intersex is the preferred term nowadays), and starts with: ‘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.’ Brilliant hook. A curiously topical choice of reading as it turned out, given this week’s verdict on the gender tests for the South African athlete, Caster Semenya.

When I was a midwife (about a hundred years ago) I delivered babies with ambiguous genitalia and agonised with the parents. What’s the first question everyone asks? Is it a boy or a girl? Imagine having to say, We don’t know. But as far as I’m aware, I’ve never encountered anyone with both male and female organs. And I knew precious little about the condition before I read this book.

Middlesex (neat title, eh?) explores the genetics, psychology, physiology, relationships, exploitation … oh, and so much more, in a wonderfully entertaining but thought-provoking tale. It deservedly won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, in my opinion. I was gripped, but I also learned so much along the way. And Eugenides did all the slog, all the research, all the experimenting, so I can have it handed to me on a gold-rimmed platter. How generous is that?

 

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