Tuesday, May 2, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Lately I’ve been reading some good books, some great books, and some mediocre books. And now, I’ve just finished reading The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese, which is in a category all by itself. This novel is monumental. I think I loved it even more than I loved Verghese’s earlier Cutting for Stone.

Some novels draw you in slowly. Others capture you from the very first words. The Covenant of Water is one of the latter. It is a long book, over 700 pages, but it reads quickly because it is impossible to put down.

This sprawling multi-generational saga follows, in particular, the life story of Ammachi (Big Ammachi) of Parambil in South India. In 1900, at the age of 12, she marries a widower with a young child and she grows to become the matriarch of the family and a pillar of the community. Her husband’s family has a long history of a strange “condition,” a familial inheritance of a tendency to die by drowning. The future victim can be identified by their avoidance of water and varying degrees of deafness. This fascinating medical oddity is tracked through the generations, influencing the course of their lives. 

The second major protagonist is Digby, a surgeon from Glasgow who enters the Indian Medical Service because, as a Catholic, he is denied further training in the British system. Digby is a kind, lonely man and an excellent surgeon. However, a scuffle with his chief and a disastrous love affair force his exile from Madras and he must make a new life for himself.

There are too many characters to mention and too many twists and turns of the plot to summarize more. And yet, Verghese manages to keep the interest level high with his beautiful prose and his well-developed characters. Their lives all connect like the system of rivers and canals on which they live. The story manages to be completely realistic even as a tiny bit of magical realism is injected. I was particularly fascinated by the medical aspects of the storyline, but there is something in here for everyone.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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