Truth: if not for Sunil Malhotra, I would never have finished Abraham Verghese‘s bestselling first novel, Cutting for Stone. Immediately opened upon receipt more than two years ago, for some reason, my bookmark never moved beyond the first few chapters …
Timing mattered: I realize now to fully appreciate Stone, I first had to read Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste (for Ethiopian political context), The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (for medical background), and Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (for an overview of women’s societal maladies). Then Sunil Malhotra’s mellifluous narration embodied the characters (after which, with his many talented voices still in my head, I returned to the page because my eyeballs are quicker than my ears).
The final result is, in a word, wondrous.
On September 20, 1954, conjoined twin sons – ”tethered together” at the head by a “short, fleshy tube” – violently enter the world in Missing Hospital’s Operating Theater 3 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Born to an Indian nun who dies, and a British surgeon who vanishes in shocked stupor, they are named Marion (for the pioneering American gynecologist) and Shiva (who was “all but dead until [his adoptive mother-doctor] invoked Lord Shiva’s name”).
Now at 50, Marion Praise Stone examines his life: the twins’ Ethiopian childhood intertwined with their nanny’s daughter Genet, their cleaving when Marion is forced to flee their homeland, his training in a New York inner-city “Ellis Island hospital” (far removed from a more genteel “Mayflower hospital”), the shattering events that lead to reunion, and his ultimate trip back home. His telling repays a debt: “What I owe Shiva most is this: to tell the story. It is one … which I had to piece together. Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me. … Where silk and steel fail, story must succeed. To begin at the beginning …”
And thus the prologue ends and the epic begins. Over the next 500-plus pages (or 24 hours if you let Sunil woo you to the end), ShivaMarion will vividly inhabit your imagination; Verghese makes sure their residence is long-lasting, using his formidable literary skills to both unravel and bind the twins’ story amidst the chaos of immigration, colonialism, missionary life, political occupation, and so much more. More remarkable, however, are the small reminder seeds Verghese plants chapter after chapter, scenes so unforgettable that the tiniest triggers will cause you to envision ShivaMarion once more long after the final page: a hurt thumb, Middlemarch, helpless puppies, stalled motorcycles, even The New York Times.
Wait no more. Be ready. Be haunted. Be enthralled.