"The Covenant of Water" by Abraham Verghese

"The Covenant of Water" by Abraham Verghese

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese
5 Stars
March 2024
From the New York Times–bestselling author of Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese latest novel was an instant NYT Bestseller and was chosen as Oprah’s Book Club pick. In the small village of Travancore, south India in 1900, a twelve year old girl has a heartbreaking separation from her mother to marry a widowed man of forty. The marriage broker seems to be the only one pleased by this union.  This would be the first of many strange customs I would read about from this culture.

The majority of the story is about how this child bride eventually becomes an amazing patriarch called Big Ammachi (Big Mother) building a legacy that stands the test of time.
Along with her role as wife, Big Ammachi also becomes mother to two-year old JoJo. Her hard working husband has worked tirelessly to clear jungle and create a profitable 500 acre farm in Kerala called Parambil.  Within the story we learn how India’s social caste system divides people, stifles growth and ignores injustices.  

Water is the lifeblood of this region, it being fundamental in a way that is unique. With a coastline of over 2000 miles, as well as rivers, backwaters and canals, these natives swim, bathe, and travel by water. Barges pick up and deliver goods and fishing is a staple industry. Soon after arriving, Big Ammachi witnesses a strange behavior in JoJo as she struggles to bathe him, his aversion to any kind of water submersion seems more than behavioral. She eventually learns of others in the family who are affected by this strange phenomenon and an alarming number of drownings by studying the family tree.  Big Ammachi’s prayer is to find a name for the ailment and someone who can fix it.
Scottish Dr. Digby Kilgour reports for duty as a civil surgeon in India and is assigned to the over-crowded surgical ward for natives. The other ward with few patients, is led by Dr. Claude Arnold and reserved for Anglo-Indian and British patients. Very soon it becomes obvious Dr. Arnold is inept and his charade ends in tragedy. Another character in the book, a Swedish Dr. Rune, fills the pages of the book with compassion as he uses his brilliance to administer to Lepers and creates a Leprosarium named St. Bridget’s. It is here where a miracle transforms the life of the Dr. Digby, and creates a bridge bringing the storylines together.
Inspiration for the story comes from the author’s mother who kept a spiral notebook with nearly 200 pages filled with memories from her childhood in India. The sprawling book covering seventy-seven years does mirror history accurately.
There is a poignant beauty in the author’s style. Within generations of romance, drama, triumph and tragedy the storyline has an unusual amount of sorrow.   Unfortunately, the pace of the story picks up near the end, when I wanted it to slow down. There is satisfaction in solving the mystery but I was hoping the love story could be written to its conclusion after suffering so much loss along with the characters. The compassion of the gifted physican characters and the medical evolution was the highlight of the story. The author Abraham Verghese himself is a surgeon, and professor at School of Medicine/Stanford University.
~Kim Luke
Book Blurb
 Spanning the years 1900 to 1977, The Covenant of Water is set in Kerala, on South India's Malabar Coast, and follows three generations of a family that suffers a peculiar affliction: in every generation, at least one person dies by drowning—and in Kerala, water is everywhere.
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