Spare a thought for Greta Waud. She loses her first husband to tuberculosis, then her second to transsexualism - he enters a clinic as Einar Wegener and emerges as Lili Elbe. Greta's only consolation is to be a footnote in the history of sex-change surgery, as the first woman who loved a man who became a woman. Now, thanks to David Ebershoff's affecting and graceful debut, her exceptional story can be more widely known.
For Greta, and for the reader, the tale begins in Copenhagen in 1925, when a model fails to turn up to a sitting for an incomplete portrait. Greta, the painter, coaxes her husband to pose instead. He wears the subject's dress and stockings, earning the affectionate nickname "Lili". This small, reluctant act of transvestitism stirs something in Einar, and soon he chooses to spend more of his time in the guise of Lili.
Gradually, we learn that, for Einar, the story of transition is rooted long before this and goes far deeper than the simple urge to cross-dress. We learn, too, that the gathering impetus of his desire to switch sexes has a physiological as well as a psychological basis.
The bending of gender in fiction is long established, going back to ancient Greek mythology. But even without the legend of Hermaphroditus (the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, literally made into one flesh with the nymph Salmacis), the aesthetic of male-female fusion would be naturally seductive to writers. At least, to those for whom the core of the human condition lies in the intellectual, emotional and genetic overlap between men and women rather than in divergent stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Two recent novels that spring to mind by way of example are Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, with its androgynous hero, and Rose Tremain's Sacred Country, which has a pre- and post-transsexual protagonist. Ebershoff swims in similar waters - not derivatively, but with striking originality. And to this male reviewer, his characterisation of both Greta and the Lili component of Einar's psyche is persuasive. If anything, it is Einar, as Einar, who is a somewhat vague fictional creation; but then, even Einar is vague about Einar.
Einar's dilemma is that he is ahead of his time. Changing sex is difficult enough today, with popular prejudice lagging behind medical advancement; but in the late 1920s, the surgery itself was untried outside the vivisectionist's laboratory. However, Greta - who indulges her husband's split existence and loves Lili as much as she does Einar - accepts that he can only be truly happy as a "she". Greta must allow their marriage, and "Einar", to die. So she tracks down the only surgeon in the world who is willing or able to attempt this pioneering operation.
This is the factual framework on which Ebershoff builds his fiction, and it is very well constructed, too. As a young American, he conveys an impressive sense of place and period - the Copenhagen, Paris and Dresden of the times are stylishly recreated. He is sensitive without being sentimental; his prose is clean and elegant. If only he had avoided repeating some of his treasured details. I counted at least eight references to a pickled-ash wardrobe, and Ebershoff describes the Adam's apple of nearly every character in the book. But these are minor points. What Ebershoff exudes, above all, is the sense of a writer who is at one with his writing.
To paraphrase something Michele Roberts once said, the perfect novelist would be androgynous. I wouldn't go so far as to describe Ebershoff as either perfect or androgynous but, if the name and author blurb were omitted from this book, the reader would be hard-pressed to tell whether it had been written by a man or a woman. Not only is this entirely apt, given the theme and subject matter, but it also makes a refreshing change at a time when so much fiction oozes either testosterone or hormones.
Martyn Bedford's most recent novel is The Houdini Girl (Penguin, £6.99)