CUTTING FOR STONE, Abraham Verghese



Abraham Verghese

This novel is 50 Shades of Gray medical students or maybe for the elite or very sophisticated readers of novels written in English. The novel is about the life of male twins born to an unmarried couple, a doctor and a nun who work in the same hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopa around the mid 19th century.

The birth of the twins, Marion and Shiva, is a traumatic medical event resulting in the death of the mother and the disappearance of the father. The twins are taken in as natural born children of another couple who work at the primary local hospital called Missing. The story follows the life of the twins growing up with loving step parents, Hema and Ghosh, two more loving step parents would have been hard to find.

The twins experience as normal an upbringing as one could have in a country which was in turmoil after tumultuous years of Italian occupation. There is stereotypical African poverty, cultural and sociological deprivation, economic and commercial difficulties but still the two boys had a caring and loving home life. Ghosh is a step father of sensitivity and unlimited love while Hema provides maternal care and the expected love of a mother. Their home has live-in assistance, less hired help, but more like indebted assistants and they also have children one of whom, Genet, becomes the center of a malevolent relationship storm which alienates one twin from another and results in a terrible medical alteration to Genet.

The social and cultural incidents reinforce the stereotypical views westerners have of many African nations: poverty stricken, lacking natural resources, without productivity to create any revenue source by international trade and socio-cultural traditions which are viewed as being primitive and tribal. Yet, the medical practitioners are people of intelligence, mostly educated abroad in the United Kingdom and India when it was part of the British Empire.

The novel is a heavy read because of its extensively detailed medical descriptions and its comprehensive narration of life in Addis Ababa under the Emperor Selaissie. The twins experience numerous traumatic events, even being the cause of the death of one of the revolutionary soldiers.

Sidestories abound from the medical career growth of Ghosh, the step father, to Hema’s growing reputation as being more than a simple midwife or medical probationer. Both step parents become highly respected medical professionals at Missing and logically this puts the twins on a path of medical education. Marion eventually becomes a surgeon, while Shiva establishes himself as a renowned and highly respected medical innovator, though he does not study to become a doctor. Eventually, a new revolution leads to the overthrow of the Emperor and through rumour, hearsay and malicious gossip, many of the citizens are falsely labeled as being disloyal to the revolutionary cause. Marion gets caught up in these malicious rumours and is forced to escape Eritria, arriving in New York City where he is contracted to work as a surgeon in a hospital surrounded by inner city slums, violence and upheaval.

Dr. Stone, the twin’s natural father, is never heard of again, until during an operation, Marion has someone comment over his shoulder about how the particular patient is bleeding profusely and what is Marion doing to stem the flow. The voice belongs to Dr. Stone. The story unfolds in another direction with Marion struggling to build a rapport with the father for whom he feels nothing, maybe even animosity. Dr. Stone, Sr. turns out to be a liver specialist working in Boston but with medical affiliation with New York hospitals. The book finally captures the reader’s attention and becomes a much better read now because of the suspense which is introduced when Marion contracts hepatitis B. His liver is so severely damaged, the doctors give up hope and contact his mother and brother to come to New York as Marion’s days are numbered. Ghosh has passed away at this point but his legacy for his family, especially the twins, is an extreme sensitivity and care for their family members.

Shiva and Hema arrive in New York, only to learn that there is no hope for Marion unless a liver transplant can be found, an exactly matching liver. Voila, the twins relationship takes on a whole new dimension, and added to it, Shiva proves to be an incredibly knowledgeable and astute medical authority through his years of devotion and study as inspired by his step father Ghosh. The suspense grows and comes to a negative but very surprising conclusion.

The first half of the book was a slog. Too much cultural and social detail; too much medical terminology and medical jargon; overly long and unnecessary concentrations on incidents and events better shortened and summarized. However, Varghese likely cannot resist weaving his own medical expertise and his own social and cultural experiences into the novel. I think most writers struggle with the challenge of finding an acceptable level of integration of their own lives into their literary works.

But where the initial part of the book was a slow and tedious reading, it never relents into becoming poor writing and when Varghese introduces the suspense surrounding Marion’s illness, the novel takes on wings and soars. Thank goodness for this is what makes the novel an interesting and enjoyable piece of writing.

A comment on best seller lists

Our book club has been reading a number of books, always found on some best seller list. However, Cutting for Stone and The Secret have proven to be questionable entries for designation as best sellers, The Secret especially so. At some point, I will have to explore how books get listed on these best seller lists. It can’t simply be because they sell a lot. If that is so, then it is no guarantee that the books are good reads. It just means someone has succeeded very well in marketing and promotion of the book. If the books are chosen because of their readability…then again, says who. This has to be very subjective, one person’s gold is another’s tin. Stay tuned as I delve into this more.

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