The Covenant of Water By Abraham Verghese Published 2023, 736 pages
Avid readers will probably remember Verghese’s previous award-winning novel, Cutting for Stone; The Covenant of Water is not a disappointment. It is an epic tale, skillfully written, full of vivid characters and a story line that–though it may sometimes be hard to believe–is still totally believable. That is so because the author has drawn both the characters and a good deal of the plot from his own childhood memories growing up in India.
The novel is set in South India, near the Malabar coast, and covers three generations of a family cursed with what they refer to as the Condition–a fear of water and a cause of drowning. The motif of water flows through the pages of Verghese’s prose: sometimes benevolent, sometimes deadly, never predictable. At the beginning of the book, in 1900, living conditions in the area are generally basic at best and for many, miserable. The caste system is strong and punitive. Medical skill is primitive. Under British rule, the natives are resentful, and trouble is brewing. In this context a 12-year-old girl is given in an arranged marriage to a 40-year-old property owner and farmer.
The marriage turns out to be a happy one. The book follows the girl, later known as Big Amachi, through the years until her natural death at an old age; she suffers many ups and downs but becomes the matriarch who guides the family along the way with love and with understanding. Her son, Philipose, becomes the second focus of the book, and his daughter Mariamma represents the third generation. All are threatened in one way or another by the Condition, and several drown as a result. Along the way we meet another main character, Digby Kilgour, a young doctor from Glasgow with dark secrets of his own. Ultimately his future becomes entwined with that of Big Amachi’s extended family.
Echoing the family’s development is the development of modern medicine in India. At the beginning of the story it barely exists; by the end Mariamma has become an acclaimed physician and researcher who is able to investigate the cause of the Condition, with the hint that in the future she may be able to help others afflicted by what is essentially a kind of birth defect that has brought tragedy to many. Because Verghese himself is a successful physician and academic (a professor of medicine at Stanford), he knows whereof he writes!
The medical details are sometimes overwhelming, as are the number and variety of characters in the book.
The gradual change in the role of women in India is a second theme; at the beginning of the story women have no freedom at all. Even at the end, when Mariamma is building a demanding career as a neurologist, she is sexually assaulted by one of her professors; her revenge is stunning. The Covenant of Water is not a quick read; it’s sometimes a little confusing, but it is breathtaking. Tragedy and sadness are woven into every chapter; but there is also joy, abundant all along the way, and humor too. What an accomplishment! What an astounding display of talent from Verghese.