“I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.” ~ the Hippocratic Oath
We’re in the middle of Virago Reading Week at the moment (I posted my thoughts on Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier on Tuesday and will be posting on The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim at the weekend) but today I want to talk about a non-Virago book I read earlier this month. It’s taken me a while to put this post together as I’ve had trouble finding the words to convey how wonderful the book was.
Cutting for Stone is the story of Marion and Shiva, the identical twin sons of Sister Mary Joseph Praise, an Indian nun, and Thomas Stone, a British surgeon, who are both working at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. When Mary Joseph Praise dies in childbirth, Thomas Stone is unable to cope and, refusing to take responsibility for his children, disappears from the hospital. It falls to two of Missing’s other doctors, Hema and Ghosh, to give the twins a loving home and ensure their safety amid the political instability and military coups that affected life in Ethiopia in the second half of the twentieth century.
Cutting for Stone has an epic feel, spanning several continents and several decades. Through the eyes of our narrator, Marion Stone, we meet the people who live in and around Missing Hospital from the Matron and the Staff Probationer to Thomas Stone’s former maid, Rosina, and her daughter, Genet, the girl Marion loves. All of the characters, even the less likeable ones, have a lot of depth and as we learn more about them, we are able to understand what makes them behave the way they do. But at the heart of the story is the relationship between Marion and Shiva. Conjoined twins, born attached at the head, they have a very special bond which is put to the test several times throughout the novel.
There are some very detailed and graphic descriptions of surgical procedures throughout the whole book. This didn’t really bother me, and a lot of it was very interesting, but I feel I should warn you so that those of you who are squeamish can be prepared! Without even reading the author bio, it was obvious that Abraham Verghese must be a doctor himself because the language he uses is very technical. The fact that the book was written by a physician gives it a real authenticity and the author’s own passion for medicine and healing shines through. Medical care in 1950s Ethiopia was very basic and I had a lot of sympathy for the Matron of Missing Hospital, who did her best for the patients under her care despite the limited resources available to her. I could really feel her frustration as the hospital patrons gave her Bibles in place of the medicine and food she so desperately needed.
I think this is the first book I’ve read that is set in Ethiopia. Before I started reading I knew almost nothing about the country and its political history, but this didn’t matter at all as everything was explained in a way that was both informative and easy to understand. Little facts and details were dropped into the story, building up a clear picture of Marion’s life in Ethiopia. I love books like this one that leave me feeling that I’ve really learned something new while being entertained by a great story at the same time!
Although I’ve had a copy of Cutting for Stone since last summer I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it and hadn’t felt like reading it until I saw how many people had named it as one of their top books of 2010 and I finally decided I’d better read it as soon as possible, in the hope that it might become one of my own top books of 2011. Well, even though it’s still only January, I can’t imagine I’ll be reading a lot of books this year that are better than this one.