I was given this book as a birthday present about six years ago by my friend Lindsay and it has been languishing on my shelves ever since. Enter 2020, the Read Harder Challenge, and whatever the fuck else has been going on this year that means I’m reading more from my own shelves than anywhere else. And I’m glad I finally got around to it! This is an over 600 page literary fiction book, but it reads in the way I like my literary fiction to read, aka not pretentious, just someone telling me a detailed, character-driven story. And this is historical fiction set in another country on top of that, with lots of medical details and Ethiopian history. It dragged a little in the middle, but I liked the beginning and ending thirds quite a bit, and I got through it surprisingly fast.
The book follows the history of conjoined twins Shiva and Marion Stone, who are born in a mission hospital in Ethiopia to an Indian nun (and nurse) and a British surgeon. The twins are at the center of the novel (Marion is the narrator), but the story branches backwards and forwards and outwards away from them as well. The first third of the novel occurs before they are even born (including what has to be the longest birth scene ever written, or close to at least), detailing the histories of their parents, of the hospital, and of the people who work at the hospital and who become their family after their father abandons them and their mother dies giving birth to them.
When I was a good way into this, I kept thinking it was reminding me of something, and I realized it was John Irving, particularly in the Garp/Owen Meany era of his writing. It’s got that same sprawling outward character feel his books have, and feels held together in similar ways as Irving’s work. Then I got to the acknowledgements and saw that Verghese had thanked John Irving, and I was vindicated. So if you like Irving’s style, there’s a good chance you would like this, too.
I’m giving this not really a full four stars because, as mentioned previously, it did drag a little in the middle, and also, I never really warmed to Marion as a character. He spends the whole book as narrator letting you fall in love with everyone around him, but he’s sort of empty himself. I couldn’t get a handle on him.
Read Harder Challenge 2020: Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII.