t’s been a little while since I’ve done a book review. Things have been busy and this read was a chunky one which I didn’t want to rush through. I do want to say a quick thank you to my followers who have checked in with me to see when the next one is coming out and I’m sorry I couldn’t have got this out sooner! But as promised, here is the next one for you and what a good one it is…
THANK YOU TO EMILY BURNS AND BRANDHIVE FOR AN UNPUBLISHED PROOF OF THIS BOOK IN EXCHANGE FOR AN HONEST REVIEW. PLEASE NOTE THAT MY POSTS MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS
As a book lover, never did I imagine that I would get the opportunity to review an unpublished version of the anticipated new novel from a New York Times Bestselling author – safe to say I am ecstatic. Picked as Oprah’s Book of the Month, I was keen to see how this shaped up. I’ll be honest, I have not read Cutting For Stone and at over 700 pages, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel.
Abraham Verghese, is an accomplished physician who decided during his career to turn to creative writing. His first novel, Cutting For Stone, was widely acclaimed and hit the New York Times Bestseller list.
Upon opening The Covenant of Water, there is a long and heartfelt note for advanced readers. Already you can begin to see the outpouring of warmth from Verghese which flows throughout this book.
“Most families are bound not just by blood but by secrets.”– Abraham Verghese
Spanning the years 1900 to 1977, The Covenant of Water is set in Kerala, on South India’s Malabar Coast, and follows three generations of a family that suffers a peculiar affliction: in every generation, at least one person dies by drowning—and in Kerala, water is everywhere. The family is part of a Christian community that traces itself to the time of the apostles, but times are shifting, and the matriarch of this family, known as Big Ammachi—literally “Big Mother”—will witness unthinkable changes at home and at large over the span of her extraordinary life.
Our journey starts with a 12 year old girl who we later come to know as Big Ammachi. We follow her through marriage, children, heartbreak, and happiness as well as the lives of her family and those who enter her life.
I struggle with the notion of arranged and young marriages. Mostly due to reading fantasy books who heavily paint them in a patriarchal light. However, Verghese writes about this tradition which is one of the back-bones to Indian culture; sympathetically but also matter of factly. Without focusing overly on what could be seen as an uncomfortable topic (particularly for the white western audience), Verghese illustrates the development of these relationships, the emotions at play and the cultural norms, both historic and modern, with grace. Combined with the immersive descriptions of Southern India from 1900 through to 1977, this was by far my favourite storyline of the book.
Through our Ammachi, we learn about the Condition which affects her new husband’s family. Each generation has a death where the cause is water. The Parambil Estate is surrounded by water with many making their living from it. For our Ammachi, water brings her life. Having grown up surrounded by luscious waterways, she cannot understand her new husbands’ aversion to water. So when she faces a tragic loss to the condition, she begins to see its true grip on her family.
The family begins to expand with new generations. This story spans 70+ years across these multiple generations, and with this, we encounter plenty of political change. In the early 1900s, India was under British rule where the rumblings of independence began and we begin to see how those within the years before India gained independence, fair with one another. Verghese carefully builds upon the historical elements within this story to help the reader understand these political nuances as well its impact on future generations.
There are two further storylines within this novel. These belong to the Scottish doctor, Digby Kilgour and the loveable and larger than life Swede, Rune Orqvist. Each character has their own well developed backstory which at times, could have been standalone novels. With an incredible attention to detail, Verghese describes both intimate and medical scenes with equal and exacting clarity. The emotional experiences each character has is deep and torrid yet beautiful and grounding. One of the standout moments for me was Phillipose’s homecoming. Returning from college (for reasons I shall not share because you know… spoilers!), Phillipose experiences a moment where his world rights itself. The emotion Verghese manages to convey is both heart wrenching yet heartwarming. You feel this character’s love, want and utter need to be home. To smell the flowers, feel the dirt beneath his feet and hear the wildlife around him. Something only a few of us ever truly experience.
The Covenant of Water is broken out into parts with numerous chapters. On the whole, the chapters are short but the parts are large. The parts helped to bring in the new storylines and move the development of the overall story along however, I did find the initial concept quite jarring. The initial chapters of the new storylines were long and you’re deep into the new world before being abruptly switched into another. Despite my initial feelings on this approach, it does become clear that Verghese has taken a surgeon-like approach to this story. I did at times wonder why certain backstories existed other than to provide character context; however, upon reflection it is clear that this is his skill at threading these small details to one another; illustrating yet again the deep and complex human connection. Much like the beloved water; everything soon flows together.
Many have characterised Verghese as compassionate and determined, both of which are prominent in his prose. His passion for his profession, family and faith are beautifully poetic within this story. From descriptions of Kerala and Parambil to Glasgow’s City streets, the world-building is beautifully done. This is an evocative yet humbling novel which leaves you with a deep understanding of human connection. You’ll need tissues, but you’ll enjoy every moment of it.
Do you think you’ll be giving this one a try?
Rating: ★★★★/5 stars
As always, happy reading.