NOVEMBER READING - Magpie Hall; The Slap; The Household Guide to Dying; Cutting For Stone

CUTTING FOR STONE By Abraham Verghese

Ethiopia - earliest known home home of mankind, previously known as Abyssinia - one of the greatest of ancient civilisations, home of the Queen of Sheba, Christian since the first century, now one of the poorest countries on earth with serious health and life expectancy problems, a recent history of war with neighbouring Eritrea, military coups, communism and now a democracy. This is country we know very little about, we don't read books about Ethiopia and the people who live there! This book could will change that and maybe make you read more about this ancient society.

Now the subject of this book is not about Ethiopia; the story however is set primarily in Ethiopia, at a mission hospital called Missing in Addis Ababa, the capital, in the time of Emperor Haile Salassie and dictator Mengistu. The hospital's doctors and surgeons are primarily of Indian origin, either through birth or through training. In the late 1940s, the paths of an Indian Catholic nun and a British doctor cross at the hospital resulting in the totally unexpected birth of identical twins Marion and Shiva, the tragic death of their mother, the breakdown and disappearance of their father. The twins are adopted and brought up by a husband and wife doctor couple at the hospital, in a wonderfully loving, stimulating and medical environment.

The absent of their birth parents cast long shadows over the lives of the boys and how they unfold. Being half Indian/half Anglo, they are never completely Ethiopian but being born and bred there, they feel Ethiopian and love their country and its people with complete passion. The twins are almost supernaturally close and forever bound, but are subject to the same betrayals and sibling rivalries as non-twins.

The political turmoils and upheavals of the 1970s (although for the purposes of this fiction these events take place five years earlier) change the lives of the main characters, in particular Marion. The breakdown of the relationship with his twin combined with the civil war result in him leaving Ethiopia for the US, where he qualifies as a surgeon specialising in trauma surgery.

The story is narrated in the first person by Marion, beginning rather weirdly while he is still in the womb which lends the narrative a slightly magical quality. Plenty of the novel is in the third person too, giving the background to the myriad other leading characters in the story - Shiva, their adoptive parents Hema and Ghosh, their birth parents Sister Mary Praise Joseph and Dr Thomas Stone, and other people involved in the lives of the boys and the hospital. But the story is primarily that of Marion Stone, his determination to forge his own identity, honour the people he loves including his dead and unknown mother, become the doctor that his genetic destiny has determined for him.

Right from the beginning of reading this book I was reminded very much of reading Rohinton Mistry's 'A Fine Balance' - making a life worth living out of the chaos around you, the overriding importance of keeping your humanity and personal dignity when the forces are against you. The wonderful characters who seem to rise above everything that is thrown at them make this an inspirational read.

On reading a brief biography of the author, one must wonder how much autobiographical content there is in this story. He is also of Indian descent, brought up in Ethiopia, and is a professor of medicine at Stanford University. He would appear to have a deep love of his profession, and I have never read of surgical procedures in such grisly, stomach churning detail. Makes programmes like ER look like child's play. The power of the written word is so much more graphic than what is shown to us on a screen.

This is a very long book - some 550 pages of small font, but is so worthwhile. It never plods, its characters seem like real people - flawed, passionate, difficult, honourable, complicated. There is plenty to learn - about Ethiopia, about surgery, infectious diseases, twins, migration, even cricket!


When you spot an interesting looking book on the bargain tables at New Zealand's largest bargain retail store for the glorious sum of $5-00, in other words as much of a bargain as you can possibly get, you really must wonder why it is there. After all, books that find themselves on the bargain tables anywhere are generally there for one reason only. So, it was with some trepidation that I started reading this, and without doing any googling of it prior.

The subject matter also was the cause of some trepidation - 30-something Delia Bennet, mother and wife, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is planning for her death, or as the back cover says, realizing that it was now 'time to get her house in order'. Hardly the happiest of topics for a leisure reader. Cancer, like taxes, does not discriminate on the basis of age, sex, colour, creed, socio-economic status etc. One, however does not die of taxes. And, we know about taxes, we confront them daily, but death is really something we know very little about and not something we face on a daily basis, or really that we like to talk about.

My feelings of trepidation, being price and subject matter, however were groundless. Despite the undoubtedly sad and difficult subject matter, this is a story of such warmth, love, remorse, tragedy and humanity told in such an achingly normal sort of fashion that it has stayed with me long after finishing.

Moving between the present and the past, Delia decides to add to her successful series of household management guides by writing the ultimate guide - The Householder's Guide to Dying. Her past guides have covered the erstwhile subjects of home maintenance, laundry, garden, and kitchen. In addition she continues to answer questions in a very acid fashion in a newspaper advice column on same household matters. Faced with a death sentence, and being a practical, organised sort of lady, Delia forces herself to deal with planning her own funeral, what advice and messages she should give her two young daughters, what type of coffin she should choose, a daily timetable for her husband on family management and so it goes on. And let's not forget the five pet hens. As she does her research, she documents it all into a manuscript for publication into her final book.

Facing up to your death of course, means that you also have to deal with the demons of the past. Delia traces her steps back some fifteen years, leaves her home in what I presume is Sydney, and goes back to Queensland where, as a pregnant teenager she gave birth to a son. And that is all I will say about this particular strand of the story because the events that took place when she was a young woman shaped the woman who is now coming to terms with this latest and last challenge in her life.

I really, really liked this book. Being a mother and wife, and dealing on a regular basis with cancer patients, I thought this would be a desperately sad and morbid book, totally sentimental and a complete slush-fest. It is sad, I had tears in my eyes at several points, but it is never morbid and throughout you are aware of how much life there is going on around Delia all the time. More importantly for Delia, and hence the reader, how life will continue when she is no longer around, and how it can be joyful. Now if all that sounds a bit too new-agey, I am probably not doing a very good job writing this, because I am the most un-new-agey person ever.

I wondered while reading this if the author had suffered herself from cancer, there is such a personal feel to the writing. I later found out that her son was diagnosed with leukaemia, and successfully treated for it while she was writing the book. Hence the empathy for her subject I guess, and perhaps some sort of catharsis too. I find it a little disturbing that a book long listed for the Orange Prize should end up on a bargain book table!

THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas

This is a sensational book, and not because when you get to the last page, you put it down and think 'Awww, that was just lovely'. Lovely it aint, but sensational it certainly is, because it puts the spotlight on the modern urban society - in this case Melbourne - we live in and makes us think, very hard, about that society. If our society is like the one portrayed in this novel, it is not a pretty place to be. To really capture the entirety of our modern urban society, the novel is told from the perspectives of a wide range of the people in our society's - a three year old; school age children; teenagers; men and women single, married, divorced; adulterers; gay and heterosexual; those with children, those without; wealthy, middle class, struggling; old and grandparents - all mixed up in a cultural melting pot of Greek, Indian, Aboriginal, Muslim, Jewish and white Australian. With the exception of the children and the elderly couple, all the rest of the characters swear like there is no tomorrow and seem to spend vast portions of their lives stoned, drunk, both, and/or thinking about or having the best sex ever, with or without their spouses.

So what is the story that all these characters are telling? A bit like an Agatha Christie novel, the scene is set at a family barbecue with all the characters present, where the crime is committed. That is the characters described above - an enormous amount of diversity in a suburban back yard and the perfect setting for a bucket load of tension to develop and explode. Which it does, slowly but surely building up to the very obnoxious, undisciplined and over-indulged three year old being slapped by one of the guests, the father of a six year old about to dealt to with a cricket bat by the younger child. Horrors you think, and if you are a parent, I bet that at some stage in the past you too would have liked to have smacked some out of control child that was not yours. In this story it happens, and you see how easily it happened.

The BBQ is immediately over, and a chain of events is set in place by the child's parents that will not have a happy ending. But the book is not entirely about the saga of the slap. It is much much more about the lives of the characters as the slap resonates through their relationships with each other. The interesting thing I found while reading this, is that the slap itself had very little effect on how all these relationships and lives would have worked out anyway. Most of them were, in the author's (excessive overuse of) words f***ed anyway - dysfunctional marriages, friendships, parent-child stuff, in-laws - the list goes on. The slap is just another nail in the very many coffins.

Does it sound like the sort of book you really want to read? Probably not. It is not an easy book to read, the subject matter is not pretty, things that happen certainly made me feel uncomfortable, and most of the characters are not likable at all. But that is what makes the story so powerful - they are unlikable and do and say things you might not like, but they are very human, just like all of us, and the things that go on are very believable. It is almost as if the author has switched a spotlight onto our little suburban 21st lives and shown us the nasty stuff just beneath the surface.

This book has won a number of literary awards and deservedly so too. Next time I travel to Melbourne I will look at the people in the street in a slightly different way!!! Although those in Auckland are probably no different.

MAGPIE HALL by Rachael King

It seems to me that much New Zealand literature has a dark and sinister thread running through it. Dark secrets lurk in the minds and souls, there are deaths aplenty that occur in mysterious circumstances, or other unpleasant events, which all seem to emanate from events that occurred in years gone by. What's more they all seem to take place against a backdrop of the country's dramatic landscape, its isolated communities, the wild coastal areas. The books of Maurice Gee immediately spring to mind, as do the likes of John Mulgan's 'Man Alone', or Keri Hulme's 'The Bone People'. There seems to be a preoccupation with death, and none of it a particularly nice death! Now Rachael King has made her contribution to the ranks of these macabre writings with this, her second novel.

Set in the present day in the very white Anglo-Saxon New Zealand region of Canterbury, the story centres on Rosemary Summers. Rosemary has returned to the farm of her recently deceased grandfather to whom she had been very close and from whom she had learnt taxidermy. Amongst other things. The farm and its homestead, Magpie Hall, have been in the Summers family for four generations, and naturally, as one would expect, there are plenty of secrets and skeletons in the cupboards. Rosemary is attempting to complete her thesis on the Victorian Gothic novel and hopes that the peace and quiet and privacy of the homestead will help her to complete her work.

Parallel to Rosemary's story with its own dramas is the story of her great-great-grandfather, Henry Summers, who was a passionate and obsessed collector of native flora and fauna. At all costs. It was he who built Magpie Hall and established the farm some 100 years prior.

This novel reads like a Victorian Gothic novel, with overtones of 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wuthering Heights'. And let's not forget Alfred Hitchcock. There is always an element of danger and something not quite right; a certain amount of spookiness and unhinged madness permeate the whole story. This is very compelling writing, the author would appear to adore the Gothic novel as form of story telling, and it shows in the atmosphere she has created in this modern day version of the genre. I loved this book, most satisfying, and by way of bonus I learnt a lot about taxidermy - I am glad I am not a vegetarian, it would have made quite harrowing reading otherwise! On a more serious note, the story also highlights how native wildlife such as the huia became extinct primarily due to the relentless pursuit of it by greedy collectors. Very poignant.