One of the recent book selections for my Book Club was Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Vintage) which is a semi-autobiographical novel by a doctor who was born in Ethiopia and had to leave when the regime changed and Haile Selassie was overthrown. It is the author’s first novel after a number of successful non-fiction books, and it is a fascinating read. In fact, there were a number of times when I needed to remind myself that this was fiction and not real. His characterizations are so clear that the people described come alive on the pages, and he writes with such affection for them that one also falls under their spell.
The story is told through the eyes of a young boy, Marion, who grows up with his twin brother, Shiva, living in a hospital in Addis Ababa. Their mother dies in childbirth, and I would rather not explain any more of the plot at the risk of ruining it for future readers of this absorbing book.
The book spans Ethiopia, India, and the USA, and is uplifting, heart-breaking, and joyous all at the same time. The themes are vast in scope and cover the political turmoil in Africa, specifically Ethiopia, and the difficulties for doctors in accessing funds, equipment and medicines to cope with the needs of the people. The medical procedures are described in detail, but are amazingly well crafted and are easy for the layman to understand.
It also deals in a beautiful way with the relationship of the boy’s adoptive parents, and Marion’s infatuation with a young girl at the hospital. In addition, the handling of the meeting between father and son after many decades is extraordinarily moving.
Ethiopia is a place I have never travelled to, but this book makes one wish one could go there immediately, because the author makes the setting of the hospital seem so picturesque.
We have had for consideration two other books set in the same country, both deal with medical issues, and both are non-fiction or memoirs. The one most similar to this is The Hospital by the River by Dr Catherine Hamlin (Monarch Books) and is in itself an excellent book, interesting to read, and still current, because to my knowledge it continues its work with fistulas in pregnant women. The other is Maalika by Valerie Browning (MacMillan) where the author, an Australian nurse, volunteers in 1973 to help in Ethiopia after their devastating famine. She is so moved by her experience she moves back permanently to help the nomadic tribe called the Afar, who have been shunned by each of the countries where they used to roam freely. Both books had the assistance of John Little, and he is credited with part authorship of both.
Both of the above are highly recommended, but the novel, for me at least, was more satisfying, but anyone interested in accurate portrayals of the people of Ethiopia will gain much from these books.