A well told tale of twins and medicine – readers need a strong stomach!
Abraham Verghese, born in Ethiopia, the child of Indian parents, is a Professor of Medicine in the States
In Cutting For Stone which is not, I assume, autobiographical, he does however spin a tale from his experiences of being twice `not a native of the country’ and being a doctor.
The central character and narrator of Cutting For Stone is one of a pair of twins, born of an Indian mother, who has come to Ethiopia, and is working in a Mission hospital, run, in the main, by doctors, surgeons and nurses who are either from India or from England.
This is a well told, hugely operatic tale, which starts in the 50s, and and flips back and forth between India, Ethiopia and America, taking in events of nearly 50 years
Verghese, on some of the newspaper reviews, has been compared to Naipaul and to Dickens – and indeed, there is good reason for this. Like both of those writers, there is the ability to write enormous, memorable, quirky, eccentric, believable characters. More than individuals are being portrayed, however, it is individuals within a particular time and place in society. The very warm, puzzled, complex characters in this novel inhabit an Ethiopia on the brink of change, between the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, the Eritrean War of Independence, and the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu.
Marion Praise Stone, his twin brother Shiva Praise Stone, the sons of a surgeon and a nurse nun, grow up in the Christian Mission Hospital in Addis Ababa, with their childhood friend Genet, the daughter of one of the Hospital workers and an unknown father. What happens to the three of them is dramatic, horrific, but also, at different times, warm and heartening, That warmth and heart are provided by the little people, the family, the caring personnel at the hospital, but individual lives are of course affected by the wider political stage. Selassie and Mengistu are both influential in the lives of the three children.
The day to day backdrop of the story is the work of the hospital, and here is where the fact that medicine is clearly central to Verghese is absolutely evident. Operation after operation, in graphic no holds barred detail, is painstakingly explained. The twins are both fascinated by different aspects of surgery.
Fairly early on in the book is an extremely graphic description of a horrific labour, which pulls no punches at all; later, instructions for performing a vasectomy, and for unwinding a strangulated colonic kink are given, as one surgeon instructs another in the finer points of procedures.
And these are fairly mild descriptions compared with some accounts of later operations
I clearly have a strong stomach and an interest in medical matters as I was able to read these blood and gore operating theatre descriptions without turning a hair.
Verghese creates wonderful, believable characters, and till about half way through the book I was convinced this was absolutely going to be a 5 star read, as he was not putting a plotted foot wrong. Unfortunately, at that point, a major, cataclysmic event occurred which spun our three central characters into some much altered directions. The event, which of course I can’t divulge, felt like an instance of characters forced into a certain amount of manipulation, in the cause of driving a good plot. The story is a good one, but unfortunately I could not believe in a couple of choices made at this stage, by a couple of the characters.
Nonetheless, a very good, old fashioned narrative novel, from a writer who is not self-indulgent. Even if he likes his characters to get graphically opened up, bits taken out of them, and then sewn up again, all described in precise detail. I think I might even now know how to perform a vasectomy after reading this book. The instructions were remarkably clear Perhaps this novel will be a set text on urogenital surgery courses!