By Heidi Simmons
A look at Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese (Knopf, paperback, ebook)
Spring break is the perfect time to relax and get away, but if you can’t make it out-of-town, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone can provide an exotic escape.
Set in Ethiopia, twin boys are born to foreign parents working at a mission hospital near the capital of Addis Ababa. When their mother, a nun, dies in childbirth and their physician father abandons them and his surgical post, the children are raised by two loving doctors and the staff of the hospital facility.
The majority of the novel is told first person from the point of view of the twin Marion. Starting before his birth, Marion engages the reader in his world. It is a world that is complicated, intense, and very beautiful. Marion and his brother Shiva share a closeness and connection (once conjoined) that only identical twins can understand.
Born in 1954 the boys grow up in the tumultuous era of Emperor Haile Selassie, the dictator Mengistu and the Eritrean up-rising. Centered around “Missing” — their word for “Mission” — Hospital, the boys experience first-hand the politics, fears and frustration of life and death in Addis Ababa.
As they mature, the twins both develop a love for medicine and a loyalty to their Ethiopian homeland. But they are not Ethiopian: their mother was from Madras, India, their father British, and they were never legally adopted. They are outsiders. When Marion is betrayed by the government, and by the only girl he ever loved and also by his twin brother, he is forced to flee the country.
Cutting For Stone creates an epic feel to Marion’s journey. It is innocence lost, the overcoming of childhood trauma and the acceptance of a world one cannot change. But Cutting for Stone is not just Marion’s story, it is the story of all those who are close to Marion as well. It is the converging of these disparate lives that makes the book so hard to put down.
Author Abraham Verghese carefully constructs a detailed world that draws the reader into a culture where everything seems foreign (if you’re not Ethiopian). There is nothing American — not the religions, the foods, the languages nor the people. Even the maladies and diseases are rare to Americans. Verghese does not hold back on the medical particulars. At times it’s as if he is instructing the reader in surgical procedure, albeit sometimes poetic.
Verghese has a master’s degree in creative writing from the prestigious Iowa Writing Workshop. He is also a medical doctor. Born in Ethiopia to Indian parents, he and his family as expatriates, left before the Ethiopian turmoil. Verghese finished his medical studies and later became a citizen of the United States. Like Marion, he is an outsider with an adopted homeland.
According to Verghese, the genesis for Cutting for Stone was to tell an old-fashioned story. His goal was to portray “an aspect of medicine that gets buried in the way television depicts the practice. I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking.” The practice of medicine starts with chapter one and continues throughout the entire book. Physician or not, each character gives or receives some sort of healing, care and cure.
There is grace, kindness and compassion in Verghese’s characters that reach beyond culture and tug at the human heart. He taps into the fundamental human condition of love, pain and suffering. But it is not at all sappy. It has humor, sex, violence and torture. It is filled with the drama and conflict that only human beings can impart on one another.
Cutting for Stone, a best seller on the New York Times Paperback Fiction list for two years, has won several awards and sold millions of copies. Don’t let the 690 pages or the unfamiliar world deter you from considering this compelling and well-written work of fiction. It’s spring break, relax, read and let this unexpected and unfamiliar story take you away.