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Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese Because the book is written so beautifully I highly recommend it, but there is so much detail that it becomes tedious and often distracting. Sometimes, there is just too much to digest at once, requiring you to put it down to be picked up again, later. It is not a quick read and requires patience to finish it.
At 50 years old, Marion Stone travels back to the land of his birth, from America, and begins to tell the story of his life, for the sake of his twin brother, Shiva, to whom he feels an obligation and a sense of extreme gratitude, for allowing him to become what he is. The book is about self discovery, loyalty, responsibility and justice, as much as it is about things that are missing from life’s landscape.
Early on, we learn of Sister Mary Joseph Praise’s journey from India to Africa. Following a horrific, treacherous trip in which her traveling companion dies from Typhoid, she disembarks with Dr. Stone, a surgeon, and eventually follows him to a hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is headed to begin a term of service. She too begins working at Mission Hospital, mistakenly called Missing, a name that has stuck with it over the years because of a problem with the name’s pronunciation.
The term missing, is a major focus of the book as is the misnomer of the hospital name. It often has a double meaning becoming a recurrent theme also referring to a finger, a letter, a liver, a pulse, a blood pressure, a parent, a moment in time, a lapse in one’s memory, a breath.
Dr. Stone’s name is prophetic. Like missing, the term stone also has double meanings throughout the book. He is a cold, impersonal man, showing little emotion and is unable to respond well in a crisis when he finally becomes emotionally involved. His feelings become compromised and he cannot think straight. His brain becomes like a stone; he reacts improperly and often becomes physically ill. When he has to amputate his own finger, it is likened to cutting for stone on another. The term cutting for stone also refers to a method Shiva developed for a surgical procedure in gynecology. It is also a term used to describe the surgical procedure used in the Middle Ages to extract “the stone of madness”.
With the birth of the twins, Marion and Shiva, we learn how they came to be and what they became in life. It is about their experiences and the lives of those who touched them in some way, minor and major. Early in the book, we learn that Marion is the more conventional, emotional twin while Shiva is the more literal one. They are the same, yet opposites, mirror images in all ways of personality, emotion and intellect.
Life in Addis Ababa is filled with contradictions. There is an ignorance about medical care and old wive’s tales sometimes work as well or at least are tried equally, alongside the deficient medical care available. The world in Ethiopia is often harsh and without basic necessities. Poverty abounds.
There are many interesting and thought provoking themes developed in the book, besides the concept of something that is missing and something that becomes hard and intransigent like a stone. There is the theme of owning one’s slippers which comes to mean coming to terms with one’s life and one’s demons or there is no peace to be had and no going forward. There is the theme of the conflict of what is more important life’s pleasures or life’s work. How do both desires function together peacefully?
I often found the timeline of this book confusing, perhaps because it was so long, almost 700 pages, and covered so long a time frame, more than 50 years. I was never quite sure how old the twins were at a particular time and often what they were experiencing seemed inappropriate for their supposed age.
I believe the book would have been served well if a glossary had been included, to explain the foreign places and words used such as namaste, shama, leba leba. Although they may have been defined initially, my unfamiliarity with them made it hard to remember their meanings.
As a twin, however, I did identify with the “sameness” of experience and the deep emotional connection of one to the other that the author developed very well. It is hard to exist in the framework of oneness when you know only the framework of two seeming as one, especially when illness is present. It is often as if you occupy the same place on the continuum and if one disappears, the other believes they will also. I have often asked myself, how can I exist alone without my brother? Whom will I then be?