Cutting For Stone

Abraham Verghese

Abraham Verghese, a Stanford professor and medical doctor, an essayist, short story writer for The New Yorker and many others, authored CUTTING FOR STONE (CS), his first novel, published in 2009. It was made into a movie into 2011 and was widely praised by reviewers. Although heavily medical, it is a sheer delight, providing fascinating data about life and culture in Ethiopia, the esoteric world of surgery with some loving relationships in the bargain. It is current, “hot” (probably to many) and well worth reading.

It centers upon Siamese twins (Marion, the narrator, and Shiva) who were joined at the head but were separated at birth. They were the illegitimate children of a Catholic Nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise and a great surgeon, Thomas Stone. Much of the story takes place in Ethiopia and brings into focus the culture, endless military coups, poverty and travails of that nation, even under the rule of Haile Selassie, the Emperor for eons, who is depicted variously as good ruler and a ruthless murderer of suspected foes (like so many dictators and rulers in all forms of governments); it then moves to New York City. It is marked, above all else, by detailed and sometimes gory descriptions of medical procedures, which may interest some but will become tedious to many, but those segments can be scanned rather than read. The characters are given rich histories, believable feelings, and largely realistic actions, and the prose that surrounds them is well above average and often elegant, deeply moving, unforgettable.

There is a recurring theme of fatalism and a recognition of the futility of most human life:

“If we are lucky, we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery and early death Which, lest we forget, is the common lot…”

Ministering to others heals [and is implied as one form of salvation]. The author aptly defines home as “not necessarily where you were born or raised but where you are wanted.” The author’s Dr. Thomas Stone, “The master-word is Work. Write it in the tablets of your hearts; fight sleep for it; wake up to it; it is our meat, our drink, our politics, our “ism”, our salvation.” Thomas Stone gives a chilling epitaph to the novel’s fatalism: “Call no many happy until he dies” -- a view which many of us soundly reject for ourselves, but it is well to recognize the justifiable prevalence of such a nihilistic view.

An illustration of the author’s facility with staccato metaphors: “A fleeting, fragmented vision seen through an ice-crusted window…a perturbation in space, a gap in time, an ignominy imposed by powerful forces whom I disrupted too many times; a perturbation of a brain undone by alcohol…I reassemble the memory like a shattered relic; finally making it whole; melancholia, conveying the feeling that the worst punishment sometimes can be to live…He lingered, finally becoming one with the dark shadows that enveloped the room, as the light of day vaporized…”

In sum, a griping novel but too much medicine for those uninitiated by that esoteric world -- and who do not wish to be -- but redeemed by the loving introspection of the minds of its loving narrator, Marion, and a number of other admirable characters (Gosh, Henna and, of course, the late Sister Mary Joseph Praise, the books beloved, iconic nurse). This is clearly rewarding to read it. Do it.