Cutting for Stone: A Novel, by Abraham Varghese (Vintage Books: 2010).

Abraham Varghese‘s first novel takes the reader into foreign worlds–several of them–and evokes an unforgettable sense of wonder. The premise: A young surgeon named Marion Stone seeks to reconstruct the story of his mother and father and thus reunite, in his imagination at least, a family that never knew one another as family.

Marion’s mother was a Catholic nun who found her torturous way to an Ethiopian clinic where his father was chief surgeon. Due to Sister Mary Joseph Praise’s vow of celibacy, they were never married. Due to Dr. Thomas Stone’s obsessive devotion to his profession, they were never romantically involved. And due to his mother’s death in childbirth, neither the narrator nor his twin brother ever knew her.

Conjoined at the head, Marion and his brother Sheva are successfully separated, but their father disappears while they are still quite young. They fall in love with the same woman and thus become bitter enemies. Then they have to flee their native country as it falls into civil war, and lose all contact with one another.

So the story introduces us to the worlds of postwar East Africa, NGO field medicine, Roman Catholic sacred orders, and more. Surely, at least one of those is an exotic departure from your usual habitat, so you will need to trust Varghese to orient you to these alien environments.

And here we see Varghese’s true genius as a novelist. His descriptions of these people and places seize the imagination. Dialogue is virtually nonexistent, yet we become intimately acquainted with young Dr. Stone’s family by observing their daily lives and how they cope with the life-or-death crises that are their routine.

Varghese is an accomplished surgeon and professor of medicine at Stanford, so he is quite familir with that world. He was born in Ethiopia and spent his early years there, so he knows it as well. Could he know firsthand the other extraordinary worlds into which he invites us? That’s hard to say. (I was surprised to learn that he spent several years of medical residency in my own hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee.) But by the end of this quest, we feel we have experienced its many colorful and sometimes brutish worlds, and they have become ingrained in our own memory.