Twin brothers Marion and Shiva Stone are born at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to a British surgeon and an Indian nun who does not survive their birth. When their father flees the country in shame shortly after their birth they are raised by two of Missing’s other doctors – and adored by all staff.
The two come of age against the backdrop the Ethiopian revolution, and its effects change their lives forever. While inseparable as children, Marion and Shiva have a falling out as teenagers (naturally, over a girl) and become estranged for most of their adult lives.
Written by a surgeon who lived for many years in Ethiopia, the novel is filled with breathtaking images of the country and heart-stopping, detailed descriptions of the medicine as practised there and the diseases encountered. While far from ‘light reading’ it is still very readable, bringing life to the surgical practices and the doctors involved.
Cutting for Stone is a book that is rich in detail, and in back story. To fully appreciate it you must devote some time to it. I did not do this for the first half of the novel. I was busy with work and other commitments, and read haphazardly, a chapter one night, two the next. The book deserves better. When I was finally able to devote some good reading time to it, I read 2.5 hours straight, only moving to refill my tea-cup, and finished the final third of the book in one sitting, as breathlessly as if I’d just run a race.
Marion’s exile from his own country, his journey to the United States and eventually back again to Ethiopia allow him to unravel the mystery of his parents’ love, his mother’s death and his father’s regrets. It seems wrong to describe a tale of such heartbreak, shame and separation as beautiful, yet that is what it is.
My only criticism would be that the female characters – with the exception of Hema, the twins’ adoptive mother – are seriously underdeveloped. Given the crucial role the women play in the overall plot, this was often frustrating. I often felt they were used as filler characters more than real people. Genet was especially lacking, as there was no set up at all for her ongoing changes in loyalty and personality, and her final few scenes with Marion were seriously disturbing.
That said, having read a series of disappointing books in the past month, Cutting for Stone had the depth of plot and (mostly) of character that I needed. A fantastic novel, I will surely be looking for more from Abraham Verghese.
Hardcover: 560 pages
Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (February 3, 2009)