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Veering Toward Melodrama

Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese

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This is an ambitious project. And like many ambitious novels, Cutting For Stone walks a tightrope between admission to the literary canon and the agony of reaching too high. Perhaps only history itself is the best judge of such books, but for me the book leans toward the latter.

It's the story of two boys - Marion and Shiva, who take on the surname of the doctor who delivered them, Thomas Stone. The two boys are twins, extracted from the womb of a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and joined at the head by a tubal tissue that possibly threatens the lives of the boys until it's severed. This birth condition sets the book's surest but most underdeveloped metaphor. The sister dies, and the presumed father, Thomas Stone, abruptly makes tracks, wanting nothing to do with the boys. They are then adopted by Ghosh, an ad hoc surgeon, and Ghosh's heartthrob an Indian nun, Hema.

Shiva is matter-of-fact smart, expending little effort to achieve his goal of becoming a doctor, while Marion has to work at it. And then there's Genet, a female waif who grows up with the two boys and is eager, as they become aware of their sexuality, to have one or the other deflower her, as she puts it.

The story takes place largely in Ethiopia during the last days of Haile Selassie's reign, the unrest that follows Selassie's demise as ruler, and the ensuing urge to revolution in Africa's horn. It's this aspect of the story that I enjoyed the most - the crumbling of that nation's ancient foundation, the blending of Christian, Hindu, and Islamic cultures there.

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Historic epics are the grander end of literature, and Verghese clearly had this in mind when writing the book. But there are technical aspects of the story that simply don't work. The author allows Marion to narrate the story - including the weeks prior to his and Shiva's birth, their infancy, and much later during Marion's surgery. The manner is which this is accomplished has the effect of forcing Marion into an awkwardly unrealistic omniscient point of view little suited to first person narration. Too, the characters, by Western standards, have altogether too many stilted conversations. This may be the manner of Ethiopian language and conversing, but these scenes seem more like TV dialogue than revealing literary dynamics.

Thomas Stone and Genet show up again at story's end, but the purpose of both seems wasted, other than trying to tie up as many loose ends as possible. Still, there are many alleys and streets in this novel that lead nowhere, story-wise, or metaphorically, and I couldn't help imagining Charles Scribner slicing and dicing the manuscript to half its length, as he did with those of Hemingway near the end of that fabled writer's career. Altogether, then, these technical aspects of the book give it a rather melodramatic tone, something I'm sure the author didn't intend. Clearly the author's vision for the book was ambitious, but it's the manner in which this was carried out that forces me to lean to the nay-saying side of Verghese's literary tightrope.

My rating 12 of 20 stars