Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

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Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Natalie Baker
Reviewed by Natalie Baker
Summary: An absorbing tale of medicine, life, and the ties that bind for good or ill, this sprawling novel resists any neat summing up: it's more than a medical drama, more than the story of twin brothers, and very highly recommended indeed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
ISBN: 978-0701173838

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In a little hospital in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, known locally as 'Missing Hospital', a nun from India, against all possible odds, gives birth to twins. And not just any twins, these two are born conjoined. Given the slightly incongruous names of Marion and Shiva Praise Stone, they grow up amidst the illnesses and operations of the hospital, both drawn to different practices of medicine. Outside the Hospital, political machinations are rife: coups, plane hijackings and even war. Yet within the walls of Missing every day brings the normal complications in life – rickets, fistula, starvation, love.

Despite being identical twins on the surface, in terms of personality the brothers could not be more different, and as they grow, the differences between them only become more glaring. Idealistic, empathic Marion and logical, independent Shiva are too complex to allow the idea that they are one being, split in half, yet the suggestion is always very slightly there. The story is narrated by Marion, who says, so near the beginning, No surgeon can heal the wound that divides two brothers. For that there is only life. It is the story of his life – and their lives – that he tells, for although the connection between them may have been cut at birth (I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest, is how the Hippocratic Oath runs) – these two Stone brothers may have been cut apart, yet there is still so much that connects them, not least their absentee father, whose shadow looms large throughout the novel.

The scope of this book is vast. It covers many years, many continents, and many operations. The author is himself a surgeon – he has written non-fiction before, but this is his first novel - and his style is both flowing and precise. So much happens with almost the minimum of words – but the writing is far from dispassionate. It's the kind of style that's a joy to read, that doesn't get in the way of the story but is an intrinsic part of it.

While on the subject of style, readers of a particularly squeamish disposition should be aware that there are long passages, sometimes comprising entire chapters, built around numerous operations, for example a caesarian section in all its detail, or a description of a vasectomy that almost leaves you feeling qualified to perform one! However, although the language may be clinical, Verghese never misses the human emotions that run high through such situations, and it is the fusion of these two elements together that often makes this book so compelling.

The background of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie and the Eritrean struggle for independence has been slightly fictionalised, mostly by shifting certain details around in time rather than making them up. For the majority whose knowledge of these events I suspect will be like mine, that is to say sketchy at best, it's peripheral enough not to really worry about, while at the same time ringing true.

There are a few niggles. At times it feels like the backstory has taken over the story – almost a hundred pages go by before the narrator is even born – and the structure is extremely dense. There's almost too much of everything: too much medicine, too much Ethiopian politics, too much of a contrast with America, too much pain and suffering, too much painful detail, too much cricket. Yet at the same time these are the book's strengths, nothing is short-changed, nothing left hanging – and it should be noted that the explanations are not always overt – the characters feel unrealistically realistic, and although having a first person narrator talk about events that happen outside his frame of knowledge normally completely irritates me, the way it's done in this book works.

Yet there's much more to this book than the medicine. Ultimately it's a story of how love severs as much as it heals. It takes time to digest – the writing draws you in, yet this is not a book to be read in a few long sittings, but to be savoured and digested. It took me a few days after finishing it before I could sit down and write about it – not many books make me cry, but this one did. It's a little bit like many things I've read before, and at the same time not like any of them. It's a beautiful, cohesive whole and a rewarding read.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: When comparing to other authors the parallels that come most to mind are John Irving and Vikram Seth. If you're interested in other books set in Africa (although honestly this is about as meaningful as saying 'it's another book set in Europe'), Chima Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun is an entirely different work, but just as good a read.

Buy Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese at Amazon.com.

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