Monday, March 07, 2011

Reflections: Cutting For Stone

Marion and Shiva Stone are twins born to a demure and pious Indian nun in a Missionary hospital in Ethiopia. Their birth is incredulously scandalous, miraculous and tragic. Their rumored father, the ingenious and reclusive surgeon, Dr. Stone, disappears after their birth. The twins are lovingly raised by two other remarkable doctors of the hospital, but Marion’s life always has a void staring at him.  Although the twins are born identical, they couldn’t be more different in their attitudes towards Life. They are mirror images, the yin and the yang, the polar opposites that attract and fit snugly onto each other to form a unified picture. When they come together, they make a beautiful composite individual, but when apart, they are incomplete. Where one is rational, the other is irrational and emotional; if one is conventional, the other is a maverick. Marion Stone, the “irrational” twin, tells the epic story of their birth, childhood, their jaded entry into adulthood, and the chain of events that lead them to understand themselves better, and learn the mystery behind their birth. In this moving medical drama, Verghese creates a compelling story and unforgettable characters that are masterfully etched by his stunning writing.

I never thought I would be moved by this book to write such gushing sentences. The book is definitely hefty - both in its size and the weight of the story. The pace of the book is slow and labored with graphic surgical/medical details, which to a squeamish non-biologist like me, is quite hard to read, conceptualize and visualize. I found myself getting distracted every now and then, and was re-reading sentences and paragraphs - surely not a good sign of writing, you might think! But there’s a haunting quality to the book that doesn’t let the reader close its covers. The writing, the story and the characters grow on you to the extent that by 60% of the book you wonder how you let yourself get distracted by such beautiful words and striking characters! I found myself re-reading sentences again, but this time, to admire!

Abraham Verghese is an accomplished doctor and Professor. So given his background, it comes as little surprise that he has drawn his characters with such meticulous attention. He patiently explains the story as if he were talking to young students about a convoluted medical case. He takes his time to set the fundamentals straight - he defines each character like they were different organs that interact with each other and lead to the complicated medical condition (the condition is the resultant story). He explains the history of each organ, the unique functions and characteristics of each, goes on to give symptoms of how a certain organ failed, how it affected certain other areas, why it brought out certain unexpected repercussions, and finally how all of it culminated in the condition, and what it led to. But in essence, he beautifully narrates the story of Life, and he dissects and presents the psychology of each character. Every time I wondered how a certain episode or surgery was related to the story, I got the answer by the end of the book. Every little seemingly irrelevant detail is indeed tied to the story, and in defining the characters. You understand the mechanics of the characters so well that the story becomes riveting and the characters turn real. This is really the mark of a good piece of literature - the mark of a Classic. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are exasperatingly slow and detailed, but you realize why they were so when you find yourself immersed in a world that seemed incorrigible a little while ago!

There are so many aspects that Verghese surrounds in this novel - starting with the unique bonds that twins share to the inevitable consequences of a dysfunctional society, let alone a family, that plays on the attitudes of the young. He sneaks in the political and social conditions of Ethiopia, subtly hinting at the need for change by demonstrating how people are unimaginably, horrifically scarred . Verghese also manages to do something phenomenal - while he dispassionately talks of the human body like it were a machine that ran into problems and had to be fixed, he also brings in a surreal romanticism to the art of surgery. The “morbidity and mortality” aspects of surgery are ameliorated by his poetic sentences, that even a person like me who swoons on seeing blood could appreciate and sense the passion and zeal behind the “art” of medicine. I also take a bow to him for bringing out the absolute necessity for a compassion-centric approach to physician-patient relationships and to the healing process. He writes in his website, "I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking. It's a view of medicine I don't think too many young people see in the West because, frankly, in the sterile hallways of modern medical-industrial complexes, where physicians and nurses are hunkered down behind computer monitors, and patients are whisked off here and there for this and that test, that side of medicine gets lost." These words elevate my regard and respect for him. “He saw empathy as a way to preserve the innate empathy and sensitivity that brings students to medical school but which the rigors of their training frequently suppress.”

I should again dedicate a few words to appreciate Verghese’s writing. It was spell-binding towards the end of the book. His words carry elegance and insight, and are deeply moving.

Digested Thoughts: This book has surely crept into my list of fond and favorite books. It takes time to get into the book and its setting, but it’s worth the investment. Yet, the only reason why I’m being stingy and not awarding it the 5-star smiley is because the “mortality and morbidity” details of the book were a bit too heavy for me, despite their pertinence to the story and the beautiful lessons they conveyed.

8 comments:

SecondSight said...

Verghese is one of my favorite writers- love the intricacy and sensitivity in his words. I liked his earlier works much more than this one though :)

Neeraja said...

I haven't read his earlier books, but I am tempted to now! Except, I need an assurance from you that there would be no graphic surgeries to read about ;)

SecondSight said...

Neither of them has graphic surgeries, but both are still quite gory (the first is about AIDS patients,the second about a drug addict) - but they are a lot shorter :)

Karthik said...

Sounds like a great book! I too stay away from graphic surgical details, and tend to skim over such sections . Will add this to my list:-)

Suvasini.... said...

Have got hold of the book after reading your description of it... I have enjoyed it so far and am tempted to read his other works soon.

I am reading fiction after a long time and must say i had forgotten how engrossed one can get in them. I must thank you for that because i started reading some of these books only after reading of your opinion of them.... :)

PS - I dont mind the graphic details having had to do some of these "bloody" things as part of my experiments on tiny mice. And though i occasionally wish the story would move a little faster its just because i am unable to devote as much time to it as i want to...

Neeraja said...

Karthik, you should surely try this book!

Suvasini, glad that I'm rekindling your interest in fiction :). The story does move slowly, especially for the greater chunk of the first half. But it's addictive all the same. Yeah, I am sure biologists such as you will not find the descriptions squeamish :).

Suvasini.... said...

It was a good read. It did keep me hooked and i loved his prose and writing style. Great usage of words and great sensitivity to explore the psyche of his characters in depth. Though reading his bibliography and acknowledgments suggested that he had been "inspired" more often than i would have guessed.

It was a nice read nonetheless and yes as you say, he does wrap up all the loose ends by the end. And his effort at highlighting the social/ political structure and problems of Africa through a gripping fiction is definitely commendable.

Neeraja said...

Glad you liked the book Suvasini! True, even I didn't expect such a long list of inspirations in his bibliography... perhaps he was just being a true and conscientious academician :)