So I was surprised to see my name on the (on-line version) front page of the NY Times today, quoting a favorable blurb from my review of Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone. Here’s the review in its entirety, published in the Houston Chronicle, 1 February 2009. It’s a good novel, if, at 560 pages, a bit too long-winded at times.
CUTTING FOR STONE/By Abraham Verghese/Knopf; 560 pages, $26.95
Physician Heal Thyself
Abraham Verghese is a nonfiction writer whose books “The Tennis Partner” and “My Own Country” have received critical rave reviews, and now appears his much-anticipated first novel, “Cutting for Stone.” Set primarily in an Ethiopian hospital called Missing (a misprint of “mission”) in the capital of Addis Ababa, it’s a contradiction of sorts—half literary novel, half soap opera, an exhausting and fantastic evocation of the life of a pair of twins whose mother was a nun and father an English surgeon. The twins both grow up to be doctors and become patients in a ground-breaking live organ transplant, performed by their estranged father, which is both the tragic and triumphant end of the novel. Written with a lyrical flair, told through a compassionate first-person point-of-view, and rich with medical insight and information, it’s a novel that transcends its weaknesses and makes for a memorable read.
Spanning the half-century between the boys’ birth in 1954 to the discovery of a lost letter that solves a plot mystery in 2004, the story touches the edges of history. Primarily it’s an indictment of the cruelty and abuse of the reign of Ethiopian dictator Emperor Haile Selassie. As the boys grow up they both come to fall in love with a young African woman named Genet, the love interest of the plot, who is the daughter of a rebel figure, Zemui, and who later becomes an Eritrean rebel herself. Deplorable poverty and vicious dictatorial rule are what these people fight against, and what Marion’s love for Genet makes him an exile.
Here’s an example: At one point Shiva and Marion see the Emperor pass by, and he waves to them graciously. “It was 1963, the year Kennedy was assassinated . . . . Of the twenty-six cars at His Majesty’s disposal, twenty were Rolls-Royces. One was a Christmas present from the Queen of England. . . . An old woman waving her paper must have caught the Emperor’s eye. The Rolls stopped. The old woman, bowing, thrust her paper to the window with both hands. She seemed to be speaking. The Emperor was evidently listening. The old woman became more animated, gesturing with her hands, her body rocking, and now we could hear her clearly. The car moved on, but the old lady wasn’t done. She tried to run with the Rolls, fingers on the window. When she couldn’t keep up, she yelled, ‘Leba, leba’—‘Thief, thief.’ She looked around for a stone, finding none, took off her shoe and bounced it off the trunk before anyone could react. I saw only the rise of the policeman’s club and then she was slumped on the ground, like a sack. The palace gates swung shut. The old woman, motionless, nevertheless got a vicious kick to her ribs. . . . These many years later, even though I have witnessed so much violence, that image remains vivid. The unexpected clubbing of the old woman, seconds after the Emperor greeted us so warmly, felt like a betrayal, and with it came the shock of knowing Hema and Ghosh were powerless to help” (200-01).
The mention of Kennedy and the Queen of England underscore the implicit cooperation of Western governments with Haile Selassie’s despotic rule. The novel’s most melodramatic element is its plot, which is supercharged by a series of mysteries, including what dire fate befell their mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, in Aden, the less-than-immaculate conception of the twins, the unknown existence of a letter that explains all, not discovered until the last pages of the story, and how and when will the beautiful Genet tear apart the bond of the brothers Marion and Shiva. It’s a bit of a potboiler, full of minor characters who have significant roles in plot twists, and which in part fuels its excessive length and numerous digressions.
Verghese is a doctor, whose previous work described working at an AIDS clinic in Tennessee, and his medical expertise informs and enlivens much of the story. He describes the death of Sister Mary Joseph Praise while giving birth to the twins in lavish and queasy detail—the introductory section of the novel spans 166 pages. After their mother dies, the twins are adopted by two other doctors, Hema and Ghosh. These two doctors become the pillars of their world, and guide them through the pitfalls of Ethiopian history, entanglements with Ethiopian resistance to the Emperor Haile Selassie, and toward a life as surgeons.
All through the novel the twins, Shiva and Marion, are struggling with their cursed history, trying to unravel the mystery of their conception and the abandonment by their father, Thomas Stone. He’s a good man with a troubled past: a dominant father and mother who died of syphilis complications, contracted from her husband. He has an aversion to gynecological issues, which explains how he was unable to save Sister Mary Joseph Praise on her deathbed.
Why did Thomas Stone abandon his sons? How did he and Sister Mary Joseph conceive them? (The old-fashioned way, an easy guess.) Which of the sons will live and which will die? All of these central mysteries are presented early in the novel, and ultimately all are answered, but should not be divulged here.
Contemporary literary comparisons are not easy to peg on Verghese: at times he seems to be reaching for the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, but with a more pragmatic bent. He is of Indian heritage, but does not have the satirical bent of Salman Rushdie. He glorifies doctors to a great extent, but does not possess the irony or levity of John Irving’s sick physician in “The Cider House Rules.” Ultimately, he is a particular hybrid creature, both novelist and physician, and like a mythical beast, has a style and magic all his own.