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Book review: The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

24 November 2023

Merryn Glover reviews an epic about a Kerala-based medical family

THE Covenant of Water is vast, teeming, multi-layered, harrowing, funny, heartbreaking, and beautiful — much like India. The opening grips us: “1900, Travancore, South India. She is twelve years old, and she will be married in the morning.” The rest of the book takes us on an extraordinary 80-year journey into the lush hinterland of what is now Kerala, and its people.

It is centred on three generations of Malayali St Thomas Christians, who trace their roots to the apostle. The young bride is known through most of the novel simply as Big Ammachi — “mother” — as she cares for her widower husband’s young son, and then her own children and grandchildren on their water-threaded farmland.

It is the pattern across the story, and, indeed, the subcontinent, where kinship terms take prominence over individual names, and the web of relationships across families, communities, and ethno-religious groups both sustains and traps its members. And there are many members in this epic that runs to more than 700 pages.

Dr Digby Kilgour comes from Scotland to Madras in 1933, sparking a parallel story that only later becomes crucial to the core family. Between these two threads lie the worlds of the Raj capitulating to independence, South Indian universities and hospitals, a leper colony, the Anglo-Indian community, tea plantations, the art scene, the Naxalites, and much, much more. It is astonishing, and at times overwhelming — much like India.

The novel’s gifts are its evocation of a rich and disappearing culture, and its portrayal of vivid characters, especially some of the secondary ones, such as Uplift Master, whose hilarious and transformative translation at the Maramon Convention was one of my favourite scenes. But the book is burdened by excessive and graphic detail, particularly in medical procedures, births, and deaths. The suffering is appalling; yet also, the ties of love are redemptive — much like India.

The book’s title refers to the mysterious “condition” that causes many in the family to drown, but is ultimately a symbol for connection: “that they’re all linked inescapably by their acts of commission and omission, and no one stands alone”.

Merryn Glover grew up in South Asia and now lives in Scotland. Her novels include
A House Called Askival, set in India. Her latest book is The Hidden Fires: A Cairngorms journey with Nan Shepherd (Polygon, 2023).


The Covenant of Water
Abraham Verghese
Grove Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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