If you’re reading this review because you loved Cutting for Stone by Verghese, that’s exactly why I picked out The Covenant of Water on NetGalley and was SO stoked when the publisher granted me access. It was definitely an epic story similar to Cutting for Stone, but was it as good? Read on to find out what I thought!
From the New York Times–bestselling author of Cutting for Stone comes a stunning and magisterial new epic of love, faith, and medicine, set in Kerala and following three generations of a family seeking the answers to a strange secret
The Covenant of Water is the long-awaited new novel by Abraham Verghese, the author of Cutting for Stone. Published in 2009, Cutting for Stone became a literary phenomenon, selling over 1.5 million copies in the United States alone and remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years.
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. All of Verghese’s great gifts are on display in this new work: there are astonishing scenes of medical ingenuity, fantastic moments of humor, a surprising and deeply moving story, and characters imbued with the essence of life.
A shimmering evocation of a lost India and of the passage of time itself, The Covenant of Water is a hymn to progress in medicine and to human understanding, and a humbling testament to the hardships undergone by past generations for the sake of those alive today. It is one of the most masterful literary novels published in recent years.
As I sit here watching my blinking curser, I’m wondering where to start with this book. Man, it was a lot. Good a lot, mostly!
The first thing I noticed was the time investment I’d need to put into it. I didn’t look at how long it was before requesting it on NetGalley, but when I finished the first chapter and my Kindle was telling me it would take 18 more hours to read the whole thing, I just about had a fit 😆. Not only is it over 700 pages, but I also wouldn’t really call it a book that reads quickly. There’s a lot going on that you don’t want to miss, plus quite a few unfamiliar words and names to stumble a little over.
Anyway, once I got over the fact that it was going to take me forever to read, I settled in and was really enjoying it. I really had no idea about the history of South India’s Malabar Coast, so it really was fascinating. It begins with the marriage of a child to a grown man, but she (Big Ammachi) lives with him for several years until anything is consummated. Everything about this was fascinating to read, especially the customs and rules and the overall lay of the land.
Man, Verghese can set a scene. The tropical forests came alive for me, which made it all into a pretty epic movie in my head the whole time. The characters were also like real people to me, like I was there.
There’s a lot of tragedy in this book, but also a lot of beauty, and that juxtaposition makes this book really, truly beautiful. I will say, though, that the tragedy almost got to be too much for me. If I’m going to stick through such a long book, it can’t be all drudgery. Just when things were getting too bleak, though, the story would switch or something would happen to draw me in again.
Speaking of story switching, this book is in chunks. You read one character’s bit, then you move on to another, and another, and then return to the first. While I did enjoy the way all the stories worked together, it was hard to get invested in one story just to be ripped away to one of the other characters’ story lines.
If you read other reviews of The Covenant of Water, you’ll probably find some that are critical of just how much history and politics Verghese jam packs into this book. And, well, they’re right – there’s a lot. For the most part, though, it added to the story. It’s really epic, really involved, and just like a whole historical novel that delivers on the historical bit in a pretty big way.
Then there’s yet another layer: the medical stuff. Just like Cutting for Stone, this novel really holds a lot of truly interesting medical history. I will completely agree with the summary when it says the book is “a hymn to progress in medicine and to human understanding, and a humbling testament to the hardships undergone by past generations for the sake of those alive today.” I especially love the mysticism in the beginning of this “condition” that’s passed down from generation to generation and they have no idea what it is, then suddenly in the 70s, the science is there to try to figure it out.
Overall, I loved The Covenant of Water. However, I did knock one star off because it was SO long, SO history and detail packed, and…well, epic. It really is an amazing work of art and an engrossing read, and I do recommend it to anyone who loved Cutting for Stone or likes these kinds of epic literary novels. Just do what I did and listen to a few audiobooks in between some of the cutaways to the other characters to give yourself some time to take it all in.