Abraham Verghese’s 2023 novel, “The Covenant of Water,” which was listed as one of the 100 Most Notable Books of the year by The New York Times, is about good people to whom many terrible things happen.

It is an expansive, multi-generational epic set in India from 1900 to 1977, narrating the story of Big Ammachi’s Malayali family, living in a segregated, colonized society.

The Indian Christian family leads tough but often joyful lives, and they gradually make their way up in the world despite impossible challenges and experience suffering interwoven with love.

The narrative begins in 1900 in what is now the state of Kerala, in southwest India, where a 12-year-old girl, Big Ammachi, prepares for an unwanted arranged marriage to a 40-year-old widower.

As she matures into her role as a wife and mother, she encounters the complexities of India’s caste system.

As the nation moves toward independence, Big Ammachi’s granddaughter joins medical school, seeking to uncover the root of a family curse tied to water. The novel ends in 1977 with her granddaughter arriving at a shocking discovery.

The tone of the book is sometimes pedagogical. We learn details about surgical procedures, anatomy and medical interventions, and a great deal about India from the caste system and the 20th-century social uprisings to architecture; farming and family; the place of faith in society; and the move toward socialism.

“The Covenant of Water” tackles many significant themes, such as caste system’s impact on relationships and societal order, and the pain it causes through forced segregation. Other themes include complexities of colonization and the role of oppression in colonized societies, and family legacy, intertwined with a mysterious curse associated with water, bringing suspense and drama into the story line.

The book raises questions about inheritance and fate, and the power of the body portrayed as a vessel of experience that has authority over emotional turmoil. It explores connectedness through the idea that “all water is connected” affirming that family is not just through blood relations, but through shared experiences and human connection.

This book also illustrates the beauty of everyday life, with intimate glimpses into characters’ routines, foods and interactions. It provides rich descriptions of the south Indian landscape, including weather, flora and geography, acting as metaphors for societal and personal elements.

Ultimately, “The Covenant of Water” chronicles many tragedies yet never deviates from hope.


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