C Is for Cutting for Stone
Cutting for Stone, written by Abraham Verghese, enthralled me from the first page with this paragraph:
After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother’s womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into this world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace, 1954. We took our first breaths at an elevation of eight thousand feet in the thin air of Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia. The miracle of our birth took place in Missing Hospital’s Operating Theater 3, the very room where our mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, spent most of her working hours, and in which she had been most fulfilled.
A dedicated Indian nurse who is also a nun gives birth to conjoined twin boys in Addis Ababa. It wasn’t really meant to be Missing Hospital – it was Mission Hospital, but Ethiopian tongues couldn’t pronounce it correctly, and it was transcribed as it was spoken, so Missing it became. Their mother dies during their difficult labor, the infants are surgically separated only minutes after birth, their father flees in distress of the mother’s death. The lives of the boys began with a chance meeting of surgeon and nurse aboard a doomed ship traveling from India to Ethiopia, a clerical error, a sin, a miracle, or all three, depending upon point of view.
The story is told from the point of view of Marion, the more serious and focused twin. at odds with each other, as Shiva’s rebellious impulses antagonize their relationship. The boys grow up under the tutelage and care of two other Indian physicians who have immigrated to Ethiopia. Marion and Shiva are often at odds with each other, as Shiva’s rebellious impulses antagonize their relationship. Fascinated by medicine, each pursues a different track, Marion’s the more traditional medical school route, Shiva’s an organic, intuitive learning curve. As children they played with Genet, daughter of a hospital servant, forming a threesome of inquisitive youngsters. As teenagers, they both fall in love with her, accelerating brotherly jealousy. Eventually Marion, betrayed by his own brother, flees to America, where he learns the true measure of the Hippocratic Oath.
Against the backdrop of rebellion of Haile Selassi’s long rule over Ethiopia, where allegiances confound the pursuit of conflicting ideals, the boys wonder about the mysterious life of their mother and the abandonment by their father. Eventually Marion, betrayed by his own brother and the girl they loved, flees to America, where he learns the true measure of the Hippocratic Oath. He faces a live changing decision that may destroy him with either outcome and forces him to turn to the two people he has come to despise – his father and his brother.
This is a long book, written by a man who was born in Ethiopia, and is now a physician and a writer in the U.S. It impressed me on many levels. Verghese’s lyrical writing and medical expertise authenticate the experiences in the story. The title of the book comes from part of the Oath, that one must not cut for stones, meaning gall bladders stones, as such surgery often led to the agonizing death of the patient. It is a lesson Marion must learn under difficult circumstances.
My own father was a physician. He always regretted that he didn’t become a surgeon, but I’ve often met people who tell me what a wonderful family doctor he was. I sensed a bit of the dilemmas my father may have met in his professional life in this book.
Two of my favorite quotes from the book illuminate some of its complexity and foreshadow future events. In the first, Matron, who helped raise the twins talks to Marion about doing his best:
“No, Marion,” she said, her gaze soft, reaching for me, her gnarled hands rough on my cheeks. “No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria’. Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”
In the second quote, Marion is tested by his father, a revered surgeon:
“Tell us please, what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?”….I met his gaze and I did not blink. “Words of comfort,” I said to my father.
The words in this book made me wonder and gasp on every page. Each night was a contest to see how late I could stay up to read it.
Other books that were serious contenders for C:
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Chocolat by Joanne Harris
The Cider House Rules by John Irving
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
I look forward to learning about your favorite C fiction books.
Book cover image courtesy Google images and Vintage Books