The Covenant of Water

Written by Abraham Verghese
Review by Janice Ottersberg

Fourteen years after Verghese’s success with his first novel, Cutting for Stone, he brings readers another impressive family saga. From 1900 to 1977 in southern India, we follow a girl known only as “moloy” (daughter). At the age of 12 she must leave her home to marry a 40-year-old widower and became mother to his son. This begins her life as Big (for her tiny size) Ammachi (mother) and matriarch to her Malayali family.

Big Ammachi’s courage and resilience is the backbone of her family. Her husband has carved out a large plantation from untamed land. He is a quiet, gentle man, and their arranged marriage, consummated years later, grows into a beautiful, touching love story. Through heartbreak and happiness, we follow her children, grandchild, extended family, and their faithful pulayan (lower caste) Shemuel and his family – all live on the sprawling plantation in Parambil. Life is difficult, and Big Ammachi and her husband ceaselessly labor to build a life. But for generations, the family has been overshadowed by a mysterious phenomenon: many have died from drowning.

In another storyline, we meet Digby Kilgour, a Scottish physician traveling to India after joining the Indian Medical Service to gain surgical experience denied him in Scotland. Digby is a dedicated, compassionate doctor. He is also a compelling character, who loves deeply and meets tragedy. He is devoted to the people of India and takes on the challenges of treating leprosy patients.

Verghese, also a medical doctor, adds texture into his characters and novels with fascinating medical storylines. How does Digby’s life relate to Big Ammachi’s family? Verghese eventually ties both together in surprising ways. What causes these inexplicable drownings that have plagued Big Ammachi’s family? Whether coincidental, a curse, or scientific, Verghese does not disappoint. Words fail to encapsulate this grand, sweeping, emotional novel; it must be experienced.