CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese
Abraham Verghese’s debut novel CUTTING FOR STONE is outstanding. The story revolves around Marion and Shiva Stone, twin sons born to a Carmelite nun and an impassive British surgeon in a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The mother dies in childbirth and the father flees soon after, leaving the brothers to their surrogate family at “Missing” (a moniker bestowed upon the hospital by the Ethiopians whose accents cannot maneuver the English word “Mission”) hospital. While these expository plot points are revealed on my edition’s back cover, Verghese takes his time over the course of the first hundred or so pages introducing his readers to the characters involved and illuminating the circumstances of the birth, rendering each of them a sympathetic and vivid protagonist in themselves. With this intriguing exposition out the way, Verghese welcomes the reader into his characters’ unique world.
The prevailing theme in CUTTING FOR STONE is fate. Hema and Ghosh, the twins’ foster parents, Thomas Stone and Sister Mary Joseph Praise, their biological parents, Genet, their surrogate sister, and Marion and Shiva themselves are each inextricably tied to one another. Each character plays a vital roles that ultimately affects the fates of the rest. The mysterious conception of the twins sets the progression in motion, but the actions of each individual character thereafter affect each of the others in a fundamental way. This concept is something that narrator Marion is constantly aware of, but has a difficult time making sense of until the novel’s breathtaking close.
A second prominent theme in Verghese’s novel is the idea of order. A surgeon by trade, Verghese understands the significance of order in one’s biology, and the corresponding havoc its absence can unleash. In CUTTING FOR STONE Verghese takes this a step further, examining what happens in the lives of his characters when natural order is upset. First, there is the concept of family. Arguably, society’s gold standard for family occurs in the following progression: courtship, marriage, parenthood. For Marion and Shiva’s family, this order is completely distorted. Given the foster family they ultimately recognize as their own, the order is more akin to: parenthood (for surrogate parents Hema and Ghosh), courtship between the two, marriage. This reversal creates a dynamic that is ultimately positive: a loving environment for the children. However, Verghese also examines a more damaging distortion of natural order. Biologically, Shiva is the intended “older twin”, positioned to descend down the birth canal first. However, due to the alarming events that surround the twins’ birth, it is Marion who exits the womb first via a Cesarean section. For the rest of their lives the two are affected by the reversed birth order, Marion taking on the role of the firstborn and Shiva deeply affected by the trauma of his failed attempt to exit the womb first. Ulimately, however, I believe the novel’s spellbinding denouement corrects the chaos this disorder had created.
One of the most vibrant and consequential elements of CUTTING FOR STONE is its artfully depicted setting. Verghese introduces the reader to Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa as a proud native would. Also, while illustrating the city’s unique culture, he seamlessly provides the necessary history regarding the emperorship of Haile Selassie, the brief Italian occupation, and the coup that ensued thereafter. In fact, Verghese made the city and its culture so engrossing that I tried Ethiopian food for the first time while reading this great book! As a result, I highly recommend Cafe Lalibela to anyone in the Phoenix area!
At its core, Abraham Verghese’s debut effort CUTTING FOR STONE is the gripping history of twins Marion and Shiva, but it is also so much more. It was a pleasant surprise to encounter such an outstanding novel, and I will certainly be recommending it for a long time to come.