On my recent trip to Ethiopia, I decided to reread Cutting for Stone by Ethiopian-American surgeon Abraham Verghese.  I first read it when it came out in 2009, a beautiful novel that  also provided a window into Ethiopia’s health system.  Now I wanted to test it out on its home turf.

From Addis I was less focused on the ways in which the book could “take me there,” since I was already “there,” working in hospitals, walking the streets, meeting people who had lived through the challenging times that Verghese described.  I wasn’t troubled by the license that Verghese had taken with some of the factual details relating to Ethiopian history or “Missing” Hospital itself…. He had told us it was fiction.  A fiction writer myself, I understood that sometimes you have to make some stuff up or move things around a bit to tell an authentic story. Would Verghese’s story and its messages about life and place and love and fate ring true?  For me, that was a more interesting question than whether his story corresponded to the material and chronological facts.

Reading from my hotel room in Ethiopia, where the hall light streamed into my room all night and the dogs began barking just before dawn,  I realized how much this novel transcends it’s particular setting, and speaks to so many of us who have been shaped by immigration, by separation, and by living in ways that leaves us with more than one place that we can plausibly call home.

Verghese tells us the story of twin boys, with two fathers, two mothers, two countries, and one woman they both love.   We all have so many possible lives and possible selves, and the story of Marion and Shiva his twin reminds us that it is hard to contain all we can be in one life and place, and it may be even harder to contain it in two.

The boys are attached a birth, share a bed, and then are separated by miles, oceans, time, revolution, and their own differences. The story unfolds through the eyes of Marion, as he tries to understand and reconstruct the truth of his past.  What happened?  And why?  There is always more than one answer — a double, an opposite, a twin.  The boys have two parents who raise them, and two others who gave them life.  Their birthmother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, lived a prayerful life of submissive service, and, we are led to believe, also experienced the spiritual passion of Theresa of Avila.  Thomas Stone, their biological father, also had a divided life, on the one hand a focused, tireless and dutiful surgeon, and on the other a man possessed by binges of excess.

As I read in Addis I realized that many of the diaspora Ethiopians that I am working also have two lives and two places that are home.  I too, am divided, both the person who wants to go home, and the person who wants to stay.  Can we live these double lives, or does one of our selves have to sacrifice itself for the other?  Cutting for Stone asks this question and, as might be expected, shows that there is more than one answer.

For me the special thing about this book was not the fact that “it takes you there.”  In fact, when I look for scenes that capture what is like to walk the streets of Addis or be immersed in the setting, I find that they are few.  This made me realize that while I thought I was experiencing this place in a close up and personal way, Verghese was writing from a more intimate perspective, a surgical distance where the background fades as the human heart is dissected in ways that reveal truths common to all.  Verghese finds the truth and healing of our brokenness through the act of fiction, because, as he puts it,  “where silk and steel fail, story must succeed.”