I had put off reading Cutting for Stone for quite some time, mostly, I think, from a fear that it couldn’t live up to its hype. The good news is, it definitely can and does
The book is set in Addis, Ethiopa in the 1950s and 60s. Knowing very little about that time and place, I found Verghese’s descriptions fascinating. He draws the city well – its disparate backgrounds and all the unique history and colonialism that shaped it. After reading about it, I felt like I wanted to visit Ethiopia. The central setting of the novel is Missing Hospital (officially “Mission Hospital” but known as Missing locally). The story opens with a surprise birth – a nun who works at the hospital has gone into labour, despite the fact no one knew she was pregnant. Identical twin boys, Shiva and Marion, are born as their mother dies and their father flees.
Verghese is a doctor in his own real life and it shows in his writing. He doesn’t shy away from detailed, realistic, and graphic descriptions of illness, surgery, and anatomy. I don’t think of myself as a squeamish person but I did find a lot of it hard to read. I’m simply not used to having the interiors of human beings described in such rich detail and so found it difficult to read some of the lengthier descriptions. Medicine is a big part of the story though. Shiva and Marion are raised in the hospital, among the patients, by two doctors. Illness and healing shape their lives in a myriad of ways and are hard things to avoid. While for most readers, I think Verghese is overly detailed in this aspect, a lot of it is interesting and, again, he does a good job of explaining things.
Marion is our narrator and Verghese really brings to life the strange and incredibly close bond of these twin brothers. How natural it feels to them and yet how it can slowly unravel over time. The story spans years of Shiva and Marion’s lives (almost all, in fact) as well as mapping out a crucial and tumultuous period of Ethiopian history. The political background is important and, again, Verghese does a good job of explaining what the reader needs to know without either over-explaining or speaking down to us.
I did feel that the book went on a touch too long. There were at least two places where it could have ended and been a complete book and although what came after wasn’t bad I wonder how much it really added to the story. Without giving anything away, I found the story wound up a little too tidily. Verghese seems to lean a bit much on an emotional rollercoaster technique as climax rather than letting his excellent characters and writing find their ending more naturally. That said, Cutting for Stone is still well worth a read.