Cutting For Stone
By Abraham Verghese
I have a Doogie Howser reading complex as of late. According to the books I read, teenage surgeons are far more common than I have been lead to believe. First there was Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules and now Marion and Shiva Praise in Abraham Verghese's opus Cutting For Stone. Who would have thought that performing life and death procedures could be so flippantly possible for those suffering from low self-esteem and acne.
But I digress.
Cutting For Stone is an epic story of two generations of expatriate doctors living and working at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The novel is actually quite sweeping and provides a wonderful insight into life during the last years of Selassie's reign and the tumultuous years of Mengistu's dictatorship (not to mention the uncertainty of the Eritrean and Tigre independence movements occuring in the background). Verghese is an adept novelist who knows exactly where, when and how much information to divulge to the reader throughout but is also careful to remind readers along the way about key ingredients that cannot be forgotten along the way. I enjoyed the way he constructed such flawed, fragile characters and his ability to describe specific forms of surgery is borderline grotesque. Verghese reminded so much of Salman Rushdie at times that I had to check the cover to make sure I hadn't picked up The Moor's Last Sigh by mistake.
Cutting For Stone, like so many novels I have read this year, really concerns itself with time and love, our lack of time and the way we as humans fritter it away on things we assume are meaningful, much to the detriment of love. This notion is best represented in the relationships between the narrator, Marion Stone, his (formerly conjoined) twin brother Shiva and their childhood friend Genet. One uses time, another abuses it the third lives as if it doesn't exist at all. This, as one can imagine, complicates their relationships immensely as they grow up and enter the world for adults. This was the central precept of the entire novel for me. As a complete piece of work, Cutting For Stone is quite a rewarding read...
That is, if you can get that far.
Considering the plaudits this book has received since its publication in 2009, I might be sticking my neck out by saying this. The problem with this novel, for me, lies in it's first third. It's a minor problem in the grander scheme of the entire book, but it was something that bothered me the entire length of the read. I spent a week reading this book and almost half that time trying to slog my way through the first 150 pages. I hardly ever put a book down, but Cutting For Stone really tested my mettle. I can't recall a novel that eased into the story more slowly.
Verghese sets a pastoral, provincial tone for life in Haile Selassie-era Ethiopia and much of the first third is comprised of plot structures in need of construct for their inevitable culmination. I understand setting up your pins, but things need to keep moving. Furthermore, Verghese spends this portion of the novel delivering a Ondaatje-esque, dream-like narrative of life before the birth of the main character, Marion. All of this together makes for some pretty foggy reading.
There is a (non-spoiler) scene around the 150 page mark that speaks volumes about the pace of this book. Ghosh, one of the resident doctors at the mission (called Missing) hospital is asked to perform voluvus (a blockage in the bowel) surgery on a controvertial army colonel. The surgery is ultimately successful, Ghosh saves the colonel's life and the colonel is able to pass stool once again. I found this bit to be an interesting piece of art-imitates-my-reading.
Perhaps it was my own state of mind during the first few days of reading but it seemed to me that the novel itself had been suffering from a blocked narrative and this little piece of fictionalized surgery removed the blockage and allowed for the story to finally progress unobstructed without asides, tangents or fuzzy pre-birth assumptions. It was only after this scene that I was able to settle into the book and truly enjoy it.
Minor thing, I know and certainly not the sort of thing that should dissuade you from reading this novel, especially if you are interested in Africa, medicine or complicated familial relationships. Ultimately, this book is well worth the effort. Abraham Verghese is a stunningly adept writer of prose and a vibrant new face in the literary world. I'll be on the lookout for his other work in the near future.