The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese
Published by Grove Press
Publication date: May 2, 2023
Genres: Fiction, Cultural, Historical, Literary
Abraham Verghese is back with a new novel 14 years after his critically acclaimed bestseller, Cutting for Stone. The Covenant of Water is a saga spanning 70 years about one family with an unusual history—in every generation there is a family member with an aversion to water who ends up drowning. Verghese uses this mysterious affliction as the thread woven through a sprawling tapestry set in an India rocked by the political upheavals of the 20th century.
The Covenant of Water begins with Mariamma arriving in Parambil, a small village at India’s southernmost tip. It’s 1900, she’s 12-years-old, and has been sold in marriage to a 43-year-old stranger. Thankfully, this is not the beginning of a life of abuse and trauma for a little girl. Mariamma’s new husband is a quiet widower. He knows he’s married a child and treats her as such, asking only that she care for their home and his young son. When years have passed and Mariama is a young woman the relationship becomes a real marriage.
Mariamma settles into her surroundings, falling in love with her new family, and acquiring the nickname of Big Ammachi (Big Mother) despite her youth and tiny build. She continues trying to solve the puzzle that is her unusual husband. A fearless man of few words he abhors getting wet, to the point of only bathing with a sponge and a bucket of water. The mystery deepens when Big Ammachi discovers family records that include notations about bodies of water, the names of other members with water-related deaths, and words of caution.
This puzzle is set aside when The Covenant briskly segues across the globe to Glasgow where Digby Kilgour is a young, talented surgeon who finds the prejudice against Catholics in Scotland to be so virulent he can’t find a hospital for his residency. He joins the Indian Medical Service and lands in Madras to get the experience he needs, until a personal tragedy ends his career dreams and forces him to leave the city. He begins a solitary new life high in the hills as the manager on a friend’s plantation.
Given the size of India it’s difficult to grasp how or why these two characters will ever come into contact and for the majority of the novel they don’t. Verghese chooses to keep The Covenant of Water focused on Big Ammachi’s story and Digby doesn’t resurface until the last quarter. This is true of several key characters. For readers with fractured focus this is an impediment to the compelling stories shared throughout the novel. Hibernating characters, coupled with two world wars, the details of Britain’s abusive reign of power in India, and the intricacies of performing surgery (warning if you’re squeamish) increase the potential for the narrative thread to be lost.
This leaves me mildly conflicted about the novel. It is a wondrous accomplishment of beauty and imagination, a lush and evocative experience as sinuous and graceful as the waters of Kerala. But at 700 pages the journey requires the patience and commitment to forget about a destination and embrace a more languorous momentum. If this sounds like perfect reading, dive in. For me, the length unraveled the vital ties between characters and the plot. I loved The Covenant of Water but without a sense of urgency this jewel lost some of its brilliance.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Grove Press in exchange for an honest review.*