It has been 14 years since Abraham Verghese published Cutting for Stone, a book that easily ranks in my top five favorites of all time. With The Covenant of Water, readers are gifted another richly layered familial story of love, heartache, faith, loyalty, betrayal, and forgiveness. It is set in the very southern tip of the Indian coast – present-day Kerala – and also where Verghese’s own family is from.
“A tale that leaves its imprint on a listener tells the truth about how the world lives, and so, unavoidably, it is about families, their victories and wounds, and their departed, including the ghosts who linger; it must offer instructions for living in God’s realm, where joy never spares one from sorrow. 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. But in their revealing, as in their keeping, secrets can tear a family apart.”
The story begins in 1900 as 12-year-old Ammachi leaves her family to travel a half-day by boat away to the 500-acre homestead called Parambil. There, she’s to marry a widower and raise his 2-year-old son, JoJo.
A physician by trade, Verghese (as he did in Cutting for Stone) makes good use of his expertise in The Covenant of Water – he crafts the narrative around an odd “Condition” that seems prevalent in the central family.
In this story, a marriage broker says that what makes a family are the secrets it shares. This family’s secret is the source of mystery and myth, perhaps a curse that has been mapped on a hand-drawn family tree and secretly passed down by its matrons. The parchment warns of the danger lurking in rivers and streams, but also cooking pots and shallow puddles.
A danger ever-present in a “world of rivulets and canals, a latticework of lakes and lagoons, a maze of backwaters and bottle green lotus ponds” – a place ill-suited for a family with a preponderance of drowning. There is so much water that when people “say ‘land’ they include water, because it makes no more sense to separate the two than it does to detach the nose from the mouth.” And so, perhaps drowning should be normal.
In actuality, the Condition is a rare inherited medical trait.
If the Condition is the skeleton, the flesh and bones of The Covenant of Water are three generations of a family – their marriages and children, as well as others – friends and laborers (who are sometimes both at once) – that live within Parambil.
By the 1970s, Ammachi’s granddaughter Mariamma – a physician specializing in neurology – applies science to her family’s Condition to protect future generations. At the same time, she uncovers a deeper secret held by the prior two generations that threatens to unravel all she has known to be true.
The story that binds Ammachi and Mariamma spans the decades that challenged the traditional roles set by caste and gender and race. While society reckons with its own progression, both women must decide if they will love in spite of circumstances and forgive despite the consequences.
Like its predecessor, The Covenant of Water provides characters and scenes that stay with you long after the story closes, and its broad thematic exploration offers much to be savored. While many book clubs may shy away from selecting the 730+ page tome, those who do will be richly rewarded with an excellent discussion.
And also like its predecessor, The Covenant of Water is well positioned to be the best book I read this year.
I was provided an advanced reader copy of The Covenant of Water by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. To learn more, go to netgalley.com. The Covenant of Water is available to all readers beginning May 2, 2023. The quotes in this review were validated in the final published work.
Book Club Prompts for The Covenant of Water
Discuss “secrets whose bond is stronger than blood” from the quote above. Where did this theme emerge in The Covenant of Water?
Ammachi and Elsie both marry into the family of Parambil – one by choice and the other not. How are they and their marriages similar and different?
How does the choice between whether or not to forgive play out differently for the various characters?
Verghese spends a fair amount of time giving the religious history of the region and its connection to St. Thomas. In what ways does this Christian heritage and foundation contribute to the book’s characters, themes, and narrative?
Discuss promises kept and promises broken and the consequences of each.
Which characters have their “lot in life” cast for them and which ones have a choice? In what way does this impact their happiness or fulfillment?
Discuss the two “communities of affliction” portrayed in the novel – Parambil and St. Bridget’s. How are they similar and different?
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