Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cuts like a knife

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
I don't read fiction enough, and it's books like these that remind me of that. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is a novel takes place - for the most part - in Ethiopia, specifically the capital city of Addis Ababa. That's the reason the book was handed to us by a friend at church before we left for that country last month. "Oh, you have to read this!" My wife read it while we were in the country, and I began reading as our plane lifted off the ground in Addis Ababa, returning us home to the US. It's a long novel and it competed with a few other books I was reading, so it took me these past three weeks to finish, which I did last night in a looong sitting.

Part of what thrilled me about this book is the attention to detail that Verghese gives on life in the city of Addis. The fictional narrative is woven in with quasi-historical developments spanning the mid- to late-twentieth century, namely the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie through the revolutionary movements of the '70s, with the Derg eventually taking power until the early '90s. Despite our being in Addis much later, Verghese's account still felt like the city in which we'd spent a week. A number of the locales across the city mentioned in the book were ones we'd at least driven through during our brief stay. The animals everywhere - goats and donkeys. The huge traffic circles with monuments in the center. The sprawling Mercato and the Piazza, the latter a district built by the occupying Italians in the '30s and '40s. And Verghese would know these places well, as he spent most of his childhood in Addis, born to parents from India teaching in Ethiopia. This aspect of the author's own life shadows part of the storyline in the book (or rather the other way around).
At the edge of the Mercato, w/ the ubiquitous blue+white taxi

But even for people who have not been and may never go to Ethiopia, this book still holds considerable treasures. The story largely revolves around the medical profession, specifically surgery. (Something Verghese also knows well. Oh what the heck, look at his bio.) That the author was able to take a profession I know nothing about and make it interesting, compelling at times, even at some level of detail was impressive to me. The narrator is a character in the story who eventually becomes the main character about half-way through the book. He exercises some level of omniscience but not so much that it doesn't seem believable that he would know everything he's narrating. There are times when you for pages and pages, sometimes almost an entire chapter, without knowing he's there. The delight comes, then, when you see glimpses of him and he's gone again. After reading James Wood's How Fiction Works a few months back - and recalling my undergrad work in English - this was fun formal stuff to pick out and enjoy.

(Aside: As I was writing this, I just experienced my first earthquake. And in Virginia no less!! Anyway...)

The plot of the story is driven by the dramatic relational dynamics born out of a complicated set of circumstances involving a surgeon, a nun, their illegitimate children (twins, no less), adoptive parents, and political revolutions. You know, every day stuff. It's also a coming-of-age story, in a way, involving the main character as he goes from infanthood to adulthood. So there are a number of different dimensions to this book that Verghese holds together quite well. As an Iowan, I'm obliged to say that the author got his MFA in writing from the renowned Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. So that's how you know he's good.

So if you like far-off locales, history, the medical profession, and family shenanigans, all tied together pretty cleanly, then you'll probably like reading this book. I was a little intimidated by its length at first but it never felt burdensome. Great read.

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