Reviews for The Covenant Of Water

by Abraham Verghese

Publishers Weekly
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The physician-writer Abraham Verghese's riveting, sprawling epic opens with a mother and her 12-year-old daughter crying. It is 1900 in Travancore, south India, today part of Kerala, and in the morning, the frightened girl is to marry a man who is 40 and a widower. She will do as she is told but she cannot imagine the future ahead. Her mother reassures her but soon her voice ebbs, her breathing slows, and then she is asleep, leaving her daughter awake. The body's need for rest overtakes the mother's anguish. And we are thus ushered into the next day and the girl's journey on a boat far from her childhood home.

Big Ammachi, as the girl will come to be known, will grow to love her husband; he, in turn, will treat her like the child she is for several more years. By the time she is 17, she will give birth to her first child, a daughter named Baby Mol. They live on their estate, Parambil, the labour handled dutifully by a man named Shamuel, who is part of the landless caste called the pulayan. Big Ammachi eventually has a son, Philipose, and he and Shamuel's young son, Joppan, are playmates, but when a school official prohibits Joppan from attending class, Big Ammachi finds herself struggling to explain the caste system that is forcing the friends to live increasingly segregated lives. "Its roots are deep and so ancient that it feels like a law of nature, like rivers going to the sea. But the pain in those innocent eyes reminds her of what is so easy to forget: the caste system is an abomination." Decades later, Philipose and Joppan will have uncomfortable conversations about what is owed by landowners to the pulayan, but any lingering anger that Joppan might have is put off for another generation.

Spanning from 1900 to 1977 in Kerala, The Covenant of Water reveals some of the contradictions of living in a colonised, segregated society. Dr Digby Kilgour, the lonely son of an impoverished alcoholic mother, flees Scotland for colonised India, only to discover that he is "oppressed in Glasgow; oppressor here. The thought depresses him." Yet the complicated questions that might develop as he negotiates with those increasingly fraught realities are set aside while he contends with his new hospital job and begins an affair with a woman who is married to a colleague. Tensions rise as that colleague makes a fatal medical error and places the blame on Digby. Any confrontation that would have occurred, however, is derailed by an accident that conveniently pushes Digby's storyline in another direction.

Big Ammachi watches her family expand and shrink through births and tragic deaths that involve a family curse connected to water. India gains independence. Her granddaughter, her namesake, enters medical school and tries to find the cause for this curse. Other characters make their appearance and multiple plotlines converge through encounters that rely heavily on coincidence and sudden incidents. Over the course of the book, people do not change as much as accumulate and shoulder new experiences.

The psychological and emotional growth that could have fostered deeper understandings and greater revelations remains unexplored. Verghese chooses instead to reckon with biological realities: disfiguring scars and developmental challenges, incurable afflictions and hereditary diseases, fatal accidents and debilitating addictions. The novel's authority lies not in the excavation of psychological ambiguities, but in the dawning awareness that each character is beholden to something much more powerful and more encompassing than emotional turmoil: the physical bodies they inhabit.

This is a novel - a splendid, enthralling one - about the body, about what characters inherit and what makes itself felt upon them. It is the body that contains ambiguities and mysteries. As in his international bestseller Cutting for Stone, Verghese's medical knowledge and his mesmerising attention to detail combine to create breathtaking, edge-of-your-seat scenes of survival and medical procedures that are difficult to forget. Tenderness permeates every page, at the same time as he is ruthless with the many ways his characters are made vulnerable by simply being alive. Those scenes when a person must fight for their life make for some of the most gripping episodes that I have read in some time.

At the beginning of the book, Big Ammachi, the young bride, looks out at her new home. It is "a child's fantasy world of rivulets and canals, a latticework of lakes and lagoons, a maze of backwaters and bottle-green lotus ponds; a vast circulatory system because, as her father used to say, all water is connected". This concept of connectedness, the sense of family that can extend to those unrelated by blood, is carried through nearly every chapter of this novel. "This is the covenant of water," a character thinks towards the end, "that they're all linked inescapably by their acts of commission and omission and no one stands alone."

The Covenant of Water contains a larger question of community and belonging, one that feels most important in these days of escalating political wars and tensions: is it possible to be fragile and wounded, and still necessary and loved? The answer is rendered with care by a writer who looks at the world with a doctor's knowing, merciful gaze. As much as any moral reckoning or catastrophic plot point, this is why literature, in all its comforting and challenging forms, matters.

Library Journal
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This new work from Verghese (Cutting for Stone) is not just a novel; it is a literary landmark, a monumental treatment of family and country, as sprawling in scope as Edna Ferber's Giant. The story spans over 70 years and three generations of a family living in Kerala on the western coast of India, a place where water has as much significance as land. But for this family, water is also a curse; in each generation, one family member has died by drowning, and the fear of water looms ominously. The story begins with the awkwardness of the arranged marriage of 12-year-old Mariamma—later known as Big Ammachi (Big Mother)—to a man 40 years her senior, an arrangement with which neither bride nor groom is happy at first. But as time passes, the couple adjusts, and a deep love infuses their union and the generations that follow. Big Ammachi oversees her family with patience and wisdom, remaining present even after death. VERDICT Writing with compassion and insight, Verghese creates distinct characters in Dickensian profusion, and his language is striking; even graphic descriptions of medical procedures are beautifully wrought. Throughout, there are joy, courage, and devotion as well as tragedy; always there is water, the covenant that links all.—Michael F. Russo

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Three generations of a South Indian family are marked by passions and peccadillos, conditions and ambitions, interventions both medical and divine. "Where the sea meets white beach, it thrusts fingers inland to intertwine with the rivers snaking down the green canopied slopes of the Ghats. It is a child’s fantasy world of rivulets and canals, a latticework of lakes and lagoons, a maze of backwaters and bottle-green lotus ponds; a vast circulatory system because, as her father used to say, all water is connected." Verghese's narrative mirrors the landscape it is set in, a maze of connecting storylines and biographies so complex and vast that it's almost a little crazy. But as one of the characters points out, "You can't set out to achieve your goals without a little madness." The madness begins in 1900, when a 12-year-old girl is married off to a widower with a young son. She will be known as Ammachi, "little mother," before she's even a teenager. Her life is the central stream that flows through the epic landscape of this story, in which drowning is only the most common of the disastrous fates Verghese visits on his beloved characters—burning, impaling, leprosy, opium addiction, hearing loss, smallpox, birth defects, political fanaticism, and so much more, though many will also receive outsized gifts in artistic ability, intellect, strength, and prophecy. As in the bestselling and equally weighty Cutting for Stone (2009), the fiction debut by Verghese (who's also a physician), the medical procedures and advances play a central role—scenes of hand surgery and brain surgery are narrated with the same enthusiastic detail as scenes of lovemaking. A few times along this very long journey one may briefly wonder, Is all this really necessary? What a joy to say it is, to experience the exquisite, uniquely literary delight of all the pieces falling into place in a way one really did not see coming. As Ammachi is well aware by the time she is a grandmother in the 1970s, "A good story goes beyond what a forgiving God cares to do: it reconciles families and unburdens them of secrets whose bond is stronger than blood." By God, he's done it again. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Instantly and utterly absorbing is the so-worth-the-long-wait new novel by the author of Cutting for Stone (2009). Spanning 70 years, it opens with the 1900 marriage of a 12-year-old girl to a 40-year-old widower with a young child. The couple belong to India’s Saint Thomas Christian community, descendants of St. Thomas’ converts after his arrival in present-day Kerala almost two millennia prior. While toddler JoJo immediately accepts the bride as his mother, the groom maintains a watchful distance until she is ready for a husband. She matures into Big Ammachi, the beloved matriarch of Parambil, the family’s 500-acre estate. She births two children, a daughter who never outgrows a five-year-old’s delight and a son whose wanderings finally bring him home to stay. Always looming is “the Condition,” a mysterious history of drowning that claims a victim in every generation. Meanwhile, in faraway Glasgow, orphaned Digby becomes a doctor against impossible odds and escapes his tragic past to become a privileged white man in British India. His trajectory as a promising surgeon, estate owner, and gentle caretaker inevitably overlaps with many of Parambil’s inhabitants. Verghese—who gifts the matriarch his mother’s name and even some of her stories—illuminates colonial history, challenges castes and classism, and exposes injustices, all while spectacularly spinning what will undoubtedly be one of the most lauded, awarded, best-selling novels of the year.