A great, sprawling triumph of a novel

Review: Vivien Horler

The Covenant of Water, by Abraham Verghese (Grove Press UK)

Years ago I was in a book shop trying to decide between three novels, one of which was John Irving’s The World According to Garp.  The bookseller looked at my selection, handed me Garp, and said: “After you’ve read this one you won’t need those.”

I feel a bit that way about The Covenant of Water. It’s a big, long, sprawling triumph of a novel, one in which the author disconcertingly doesn’t hesitate to kill off characters you’ve come to admire and love, and yet there are enough others to keep you going with enthusiasm.

Abraham Verghese’s first novel was the acclaimed and brilliant Cutting for Stone, about a doctor in Africa, which remained on the New York Times bestselling list for two years.

His background is interesting – he was born in Ethiopia to Christian parents from Kerala in India.

After the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, the family left for the US. Later the young Abraham studied medicine in Madras, now Chennai. Following his graduation he returned to the US where he worked in hospitals in Tennessee and Texas. He is currently a professor of medicine at Stanford.

In this novel, which is set in a Christian community in a Kerala in 1900, a 12-year-old child bride arrives terrified at the home of her small-landowner husband, a 40-year-old widower. At first he refuses to marry her, pointing out he already has a child to look after and doesn’t need another.

But the marriage goes ahead and the couple eventually gel, finding love and comfort in each other. The young bride, who soon becomes known as Big Ammachi, bonds with little Jo-Jo, her stepson, who is not that much younger than she, and he with her.

One day Big Ammachi finds a collection of moth-eaten papers that amount to a family tree, and she discovers that in each generation someone dies by drowning. In Kerala you can’t avoid water – what with rivers and canals and the province’s famed backwaters, it is everywhere.

Big Ammachi comes to think of it as the Condition, something that appears to be passed down. Her husband avoids water, and so does Jo-Jo, and yet, years later, her granddaughter Mariamma is a great swimmer.

The novel is rooted in Parambil, the family estate, and explores the links between various family members and the people of different castes who work for them.

But there is a wider world, and interwoven with the story of Parambil is a second story of Digby, a young Glaswegian doctor who joins the Indian medical service during the flagging days of Britain’s colonial project in India. He becomes an expert in hand surgery, a skill that serves him well when working in a leper hospital not far from Parambil.

The novel covers the period from 1900 to 1977, and we see many beloved characters born and die, some peacefully, some not. We follow historical events, World War 2, independence, the coming of electricity to Parambil, and eventually even a hospital.

Big Ammachi’s granddaughter, Mariamma, becomes a doctor who begins to uncover the genetic secrets of the Condition – it turns out it’s a real thing. Standing beside the river she realises: “This is the covenant of water: that  they’re all linked inescapably by their acts of commission and omission, and no one stands alone. She stays there listening to the burbling mantra, the chant that never ceases, repeating its message that all is one.”

Eventually the interwoven threads between the lives of Mariamma and Digby – many years her senior – become clear.

I’ve read reviews that say the novel flags towards the end, but I didn’t think so. The surprises keep coming.

I thought it was brilliant.

  • The Covenant of Water is one of Exclusive Books’ top reads of the month.


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