Eritrean insurgents during the war of independence

Women are either saints or sinners, men are heroes or tragically flawed in a lengthy surgically embellished epic novel about twins separated at birth but joined in death.

Written in the first person by surgeon Marion Stone as he looks back on his life in Ethiopia and New York with lengthy flashbacks throughout we follow the story of him and his twin brother Shiva as they grow up in 1960s Addis Ababa. With their father disappeared and mother dead the boys enjoy a new family amongst the hospital staff and in particular their adoptive parents in Hema and Ghosh.

We learn a good deal about late 20th century Ethiopia and even more about the intricacies of surgery, medical disorders and diseases of neglect and poverty as the author delves into each subject in forensic detail. Too much detail – leaving the reader wanting brevity in the telling of the tale.

What we do get is a story of paternal betrayal and redemption, brotherly betrayal and redemption and even military betrayal and redemption as Ethiopia’s 1961 military rebellion and the later Eritrean liberation war are crammed into a novel overflowing with incident. And those political events in the East African country provide some of the more exciting and action packed sequences featuring uprisings, murders and dramatic escapes.

Adis Ababa in the 1960s

But back to the story of two brothers, and in particular self-centred Marion. Tainted Genet is Marion Stone’s life-long love who is so sadly soiled by the time he unfeasibly loses his virginity with her in his late 20s gets the blame for his illness following their long delayed night of passion. Genet is painted as a rather pathetic but he fails to recognise that she has suffered the agony of genital mutilation, the experience of having fallen in with no-good Marxist terrorists, lost her son to social services and was finally betrayed by her husband before being sent to jail. But we are seeing the world through his eyes as he also opens ours to his limited vision.

His mother who dies in childbirth is given an equally difficult life history but achieves something close to sainthood in his eyes due to her religious devotion and self-sacrifice in service to his father. Of course as an unreliable narrator he can judge his characters in his own terms – and as such canonizes himself and ties up as many loose ends in a novel which enlightens but also stalls at times due to its detail and need to explain everything at great length.

Harry Mottram

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