The Covenant of Water

Grove. May 2023. 736p. ISBN 9780802162175. $32. F
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.
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