Marion was conceived, it seems, through an affair between a surgeon and his nurse. A nun. Sister Mary Joseph Praise was Thomas Stone’s right hand in Operating Theater 3 at the tiny Mission hospital known as “Missing” in Addis Ababa. Their affair was a complete secret until the day she gave birth—and died.
The sight of Sister Mary Joseph Praise, nearly comatose and with a head visible in the birth canal drove the normally impressive Doctor Stone to near insanity. Rather than attempt a caesarian section or vaginal delivery, he attempts to crush the baby’s skull in order to deliver the fetus.
It was Marion’s twin brother, Shiva, that Dr. Stone attempted to kill. Hema, the midwife who had been away for several weeks, arrived and delivered the babies via c-section in time to save the children. It was too late for Sister Mary Joseph Praise. Despite the attempts of Hema and Matron, the overseer of Missing, to get Dr. Stone to acknowledge his children, he abandons them and Missing, never to be seen again.
Hema adopts the children and raises them as her own, taking Ghosh, the hospital’s internist, as their father and her de facto husband. The children are raised at Missing along with Genet, their cook’s daughter.
Verghese does a masterful job of weaving details of setting into the framework of the story. He inhabits Marion at each age and stage, at once telling the story as an adult looking back and as a child experiencing everything for the first time. You as the reader see the world through the eyes of a newborn baby, assumed dead, placed in a bowl off to the side while everyone works to save his mother. You watch your parents struggle to cope with your twin brother’s apnea and feel the connection the boys, who were born with their skulls joined by a flap of skin, feel for each other.
The details of the setting, Addis Ababa and Missing Hospital in particular, are laid out clearly, and each of the characters are fully developed. However, it is in the character development and setting of the scene that Verghese lost me a few times.
During the birth, which spans the first 109 pages of the book, you meet several characters: Thomas Stone, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, Ghosh, Hema, the Probationer, various people that were on the airplane from Aden, the plane’s captain and others. At minimum, these characters are given a few paragraphs of back story. Most, however, are given several pages. Verghese weave plot and conflict into the back story and switching from character to character at just the point that the reader stays hooked enough to slog through another person’s life story to find out what happened to the original one. In places, though, this method of introducing so many people so early on left me both confused and tempted to abandon the entire project.
My second issue with Verghese’s writing is minor and all but disappears once you move into Part Two (although I’m only half-way done with the book, so it may come back as Marion grows). His use of medical vernacular and terminology becomes a thick mud, getting my mind stuck on concepts that aren’t overly important for the progression of the story, making it hard to keep forging ahead. However, as I said, once Marion is born and begins to grow, the medical language all but disappears. I have just reached the point where Marion is discovering his love for the science of medicine, so there is the opportunity for it to come back. I am hoping that by learning it along with Marion as he grows it won’t become so daunting.
Finally, the last point to discuss in the first half of Cutting for Stone is setting. Verghese makes Addis Ababa itself and Missing Hospital in particular into characters in the book, weaving in information about the area, the scenery and the political climate of Marion’s youth. His language is poetic and he does a beautiful job of weaving Amharic and English together. In this case, the limitation is my mind and imagination, when I think of Ethiopia and Africa the images in my head are of tribes and photos I saw as a kid in National Geographic Magazine. I have a hard time reconciling the squalor poverty in my brain with a city of modern conveniences like electricity, a fully operational surgical theater, and paved roads for the Emperor’s BMW. Verghese may have anticipated this, because even after the setting has been well established he continues to add details here and there, filling in the picture.
All in all, I’m enjoying the book. I’m hooked to Marion now, I want to know if Dr. Stone really is his father and, if so, will we ever find out for sure? Will we ever see him again? I see Marion’s aptitude for medicine and am eager to see him grow in the hospital and where his life goes. I’m hoping that the person with the week-overdue copy returns theirs to the library by Tuesday so I can renew mine, if not, I’ll buy the kindle version. Verghese is coming to speak at Libscomb this summer and I’m planning to attend. Three months or so ago I listened to an interview with him and really enjoyed it.