Monday, May 24, 2010

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

I'm in three book clubs in our village of 1500 people, and two of the three are reading Cutting for Stone.

Lucky me, I found the trade paperback for 50 cents in our library sale room, and had a weekend free to read its 658 pages.

The author also wrote My Own Country in 1996, his nonfiction account of the arrival of AIDS in rural east Tennessee (specifically, the Johnson City area) in the 1980s. As an internal medicine physician, Verghese knows his stuff, and sometimes his knowing so well what can go wrong with the human body made for somewhat queasy reading.

My Own Country, published almost 20 years before Cutting for Stone, is vividly written and at times riveting, but his first novel is incredible, brilliant.

The novel's plot is as intricate as it is mesmerizing: a nun with issues has an affair in Ethiopia with a physician with issues and dies giving birth to conjoined twins who are almost murdered…

Well. The plot alone could win a prize for cleverness, but Verghese, as deftly as the surgeons in his operating theaters sew up their patients, artfully describes the exotic and dangerous world of mid-sixties South Africa, as well as developing a variety of difficult and fascinating characters and carrying them along a fascinating story arc.

Marion, the mirror twin of Shiva and the protagonist of the novel, grows up in the hospital in which he was born and cut away from his brother; his life, surrounded as it is by the milieu of medicine, is always seen within the psychic connection to his twin.

I found Verghese's use of language and his vivid descriptions of Ethiopia to be as compelling as his story arc, with stylish and sophisticated writing and tight, careful plotting. Sometimes the pacing felt uneven to me: early, critical chapters contain several tantalizing, frustrating point-of-view shifts at crisis points that are reviewed from various perspectives in minute detail over the course of a day; in later chapters, there are sudden, startling leaps of years from one page to the next. But this seems a trivial criticism when considering the amazing depth of Verghese's character development, his skillfully detailed understanding of surgery and internal medicine.

This is a book I closed with a sigh--I was tired, sort of grossed out, even overwhelmed. I was, in fact, a tiny bit relieved the journey with Marion--Ethiopian surgeon, son of a nun, Siamese twin--was over.

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