cover image The Covenant of Water

The Covenant of Water

Abraham Verghese. Grove, $32 (736p) ISBN 978-0-8021-6217-5

Verghese’s breathtaking latest (after Cutting for Stone) follows several generations of a South Indian family as they search for the roots of a curse. The watery setting of Travancore (later Kerala) is described in dreamlike terms, with “rivulets and canals, a latticework of lakes and lagoons, a maze of backwaters and bottle-green lotus ponds.” There, a member of the Parambil family has drowned in each of the last three generations. The story begins in 1900 when a 12-year-old girl, who becomes known as Big Ammachi, marries a 40-year-old widower with a two-year-old son, JoJo. Big Ammachi sees the curse firsthand after discovering JoJo drowned at 10 in an irrigation ditch. At 16, she gives birth to Baby Mol, a daughter gifted with prophecy, and then to a son, Philipose, who becomes a newspaper columnist and marries Elsie, a beautiful and talented artist. They live in Big Ammachi’s loving home with their son, Ninan, until an accident sends the couple reeling. Philipose becomes an opium addict and Elsie returns to her family, but they reunite briefly and have a daughter, Mariamma, until another tragedy leaves newborn Mariamma motherless. A parallel narrative involves Scottish surgeon Digby Kilgour, who runs a leprosarium, and by the end, Verghese perfectly connects the wandering threads. Along the way, Mariamma becomes a neurosurgeon and seeks the cause of the drownings, and the author handily depicts Mariamma’s intricate brain surgeries and Kilgour’s skin graft treatments, along with political turmoil when the Maoist Naxalite movement hits close to home. Verghese outdoes himself with this grand and stunning tribute to 20th-century India. Agent: Mary Evans, Mary Evans Inc. (May)