The phrase from the original Hippocratic oath, “I will not cut for stone,” serves as a partial contributor to the title of this brilliantly written book.
Author and surgeon, Abraham Verghese, tells the story of twin brothers who were born joined at the head at birth. Their mother suffers and dies in childbirth, and their father, Dr Thomas Stone, abandons them completely, leaving Marion and Shiva Stone to be raised in an Ethiopian mission hospital by loving Indian doctors.
Cutting for Stone is set against the backdrop of 1960s/1970s Ethiopia. The history, culture and traditions of the Ethiopian people are ingeniously intertwined in the novel. The revolution and regime change of this time period control much of the plot and the repercussions of political instability dictate many of the tragic and poignant events of the story.
However, it is the simple tale of unrequited love and betrayal that propel the chain of events that sees the twins distance themselves from each other on opposite sides of the world. Marion flees to the United States, pursues medical school and becomes a great surgeon; Shiva remains in Ethiopia and eschews medical school, but is trained under his mother, who is a gynaecologist. The spirit of their absent father is present and haunts the novel throughout.
This heart-breaking but inspiring book is also a story about home and family. All the principle elements are at play: love, betrayal, politics, devotion to family, abandonment, civil responsibility and duty all combine to make this tear-jerker a superb read. The lives of this family span decades that see the characters grow, live in exile, return to Africa, all the while caring for the sick and needy in a mission hospital.
The mother, Hema, explains, “Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted?”
If you are squeamish, then skim the medical and surgical details; otherwise, you can come away with a bit of medical knowledge!
One important back story that should be highlighted as it brings this book right home, is the eventuality that Shiva takes his training and becomes an expert in the field of fistula surgery. When Shiva makes it into a NY Times article, it reads, “Somehow women with fistula find their way to Shiva Praise Stone. …They come by bus, as far as they can before the other passengers kick them off. They come on foot, or by donkey. They come often with a piece of paper in their hand that simply says in Amharic, ‘Cutting for Stone.’”
This is a cause relevant to Zimbabwe today, as the Fistula Foundation works so hard to help women find relief from their incredible and unnecessary suffering. In the Chinhoyi Provincial Hospital, WAHA (Women and Health Alliance International) have assisted 364 women between 2015 and 2017. Efforts are currently under way to establish a community-based organisation to support and fund this noble cause.
The story culminates with a riveting twist, revealing significant insights. “The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.”