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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 32.
- Review Date: 2008-10-27
- Reviewer: Staff
Lauded for his sensitive memoir (My Own Country) about his time as a doctor in eastern Tennessee at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s, Verghese turns his formidable talents to fiction, mining his own life and experiences in a magnificent, sweeping novel that moves from India to Ethiopia to an inner-city hospital in New York City over decades and generations. Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a devout young nun, leaves the south Indian state of Kerala in 1947 for a missionary post in Yemen. During the arduous sea voyage, she saves the life of an English doctor bound for Ethiopia, Thomas Stone, who becomes a key player in her destiny when they meet up again at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa. Seven years later, Sister Praise dies birthing twin boys: Shiva and Marion, the latter narrating his own and his brother’s long, dramatic, biblical story set against the backdrop of political turmoil in Ethiopia, the life of the hospital compound in which they grow up and the love story of their adopted parents, both doctors at Missing. The boys become doctors as well and Verghese’s weaving of the practice of medicine into the narrative is fascinating even as the story bobs and weaves with the power and coincidences of the best 19th-century novel. (Feb.)
The tale of
Abraham Verghese's first novel, Cutting for Stone, also available on audio), with its huge cast of characters and exotic localesincluding the Bronxhas a richness that recalls Conrad or Forster. Set mostly in and around Addis Ababa and New York, the story follows the life of Marion Praise Stone. His mother, a nun, died giving birth to Marion and his twin Shiva, and their Anglo-Indian father fled the country after the catastrophe. As a result, the twins are cared for by Hema, an irascible but hugely loving Indian born-doctor, and the saintly Ghosh, another Indian-born physician who spends years pining for Hema even as they raise the twins together. Rosina is the boys' nanny and her daughter Genet is their playmate and "sister," while Matron is the stern but loving head of both the family and the "Missing" (the Ethiopian mispronunciation of Mission) hospital where the family lives and ministers to the needs of the poor.
Marion, the narrator, shares a nearly mystical connection with his twin: in fact, they were born joined at the head. Though both boys are handsome and intelligent, Shiva is an oddity; one is tempted to describe him as a high-functioning autistic savant. Both brothers, predictably, go into medicine. Marion becomes an excellent if unheralded surgeon, but Shiva, with no formal medical training, becomes a pioneer in fistula repair, a skill desperately needed Ethiopia. Yet Shiva's inability to read social cues leads to a long estrangement between the brothers and eventual disaster for not only the two of them but also for Genet, whom Marion grows to love.
Such is Verghese's talent that minor characters like patients, interns, Ethiopian soldiers and even the emperor's spoiled little dog are compelling. Trained as a doctor (his memoir about working with AIDS patients garnered considerable acclaim), his depictions of surgery are graphic without being macabre, and he's also excellent at juxtaposing the intimate life of a family with the larger crises happening in the outside world. Cutting for Stone is a brilliantly realized book that the reader wants to live in, if only for a while.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.