“Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” These words spoken by Hamlet in the Shakespeare play of the same name, are applicable hundreds of years later and brought to life in the novel, Cutting For Stone.
This narrative begins with the extreme reactions of three main characters to the birth of twin boys. The boys are conjoined by a membrane between their skulls but immediately surgically separated.
The father of the twins, horrified, not only of their birth but by the fact that the woman he loves is dying in childbirth, abandons the children, drastically cutting them out of his life, permanently.
The attending doctor, Hema, loves the children instantly and decides to raise the twins, giving scant thought of the new course her life will be taking, and dances with the twins cradled in her arms, in the operating room while the body of their birth mother lies dead.
Eventually, another doctor who is in love with Hema, Ghosh, simply a very decent man, decides to help her raise the identical boys, and a family is created, not perfectly, but lovingly stitched together.
Later in adolescence, one of the twins, Shiva, sleeps with a young virgin named Genet whom his brother Marion loves. Shiva, not knowing the depth of his brother’s love for this girl views her deflowering as a sexual, almost clinical act. Marion views it as the ultimate betrayal.
For Genet, this one act, born out of curiosity and hormones, sets into motion a string of acts that are incomprehensibly violent. Genet’s mother a superstitious African woman, incensed to the point of being deranged by her daughter’s behavior, forces her daughter to suffer genitalia mutilation that is so akin to butchery that the young girl nearly dies.
One event, a single sexual act between teenagers, neither good nor bad, triggers emotions, derailing lives and creating life journeys that were unimaginable before this, arguably, minor act.
The novel is set at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the birth parents of the twins are an English doctor and an Indian nun. The twins’ adoptive parents are from India and work as surgeons at the mission and raise the twins in the atmosphere of medical problems that are exacerbated due to ignorance, superstition, and poverty.
The twins learn medicine because they are immersed in it as children but they also learn compassion especially for the women and children who come to the mission, hoping for miracles.
Amazingly Abraham Verghese is able to infuse his writing with a reverence that makes the heart swell. He creates immense respect for the human body and the career of the surgeon and in his descriptions of surgery his spirituality radiates and rises like the warmth from the body.
Both of the twins become surgeons because they see the suffering of individuals and understand how a good surgeon can ease the suffering and bring healing to lives that are poverty stricken and bereft of happiness,
Instinctively, Marion and Shiva understand the anguish of the patient and the need for the doctor to go beyond the body. The twins are able to address the emotion the patient is suffering, meeting the patient at the gate to the mission, knowing the depths of the struggle to get medical care and living with the patient and caring for them until they are healthy again.
There is a palpable dimension to the medical knowledge of these fictional characters that is probably unknown to many medical students, but a dimension that separates a good doctor from a great healer.
This novel is a marvel in the sense that medicine, superstition, love, war and family can be brought together intricately but simply in the telling. The story resonates with powerful scenes that are recognizable to human life from childhood into adulthood. It tells the textured tale of cultures that are very foreign with infused emotion that is common to all individuals.
What captured my attention as I read were the varied feelings and thoughts the characters drew from witnessing the same event. The twins especially, reacted very differently from one another to witnessed experiences. Notably, Marion jumped to erroneous conclusions that altered the choices he made for years, because he let his thoughts and emotions determined his behavior. Examining his thoughts and thinking rather than reacting would have made his life easier for him but probably less interesting and compelling to the reader. Characters that are imbued with greatness in one aspect and fragility in another are what makes them believable and human.
1. Who was your favorite character?
2. The birth parents of the twins are interesting. Agree? Why?
3. To the question of nature vs. nurture. Is it possible to make that distinction concerning the occupations of the twins?
The next book will be The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’ Connor. This is a short but powerful novel, enjoy!