Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water opens with a map of the state of Kerala. All its regions, ranging from the mountainous Wayanad to the urban Cochin to the southernmost point of Trivandrum. It is akin to any detailed map in an epic fantasy, and in many respects that is the narrative Verghese has created, at least in form. The novel spans decades, mostly focusing on the travails of a single family. This family, headed by its matriarch Big Ammachi, is plagued by an unknown Condition causing a propensity to drowning. Verghese analyzes this Condition from all angles—the medical, the metaphysical, the emotional, and along with this, he crafts a history of Kerala itself. For someone like myself, a child of Malayali immigrants and intimately familiar with diagnostic odysseys through my work as a genetic counselor, the complexity of the setting and subject matter give way to the truth, that character is not at the very heart of this novel, when it very well should be.
Kerala is a complex region, anchored by its history of multiple religions, competing political ideals, and creative legacy. I have seen these firsthand in myriad visits to my grandmothers’ houses, and heard the stories my mother and father often tell. Verghese brings all these elements to the forefront with numerous plotlines concerning the Saint Thomas Christian faith, the rise of Communism in Kerala, and the inclusion of literary and artistic characters. The warmth of these descriptions feels, too, like intimate storytelling. It was difficult not to feel at home. In the first few pages we witness the beauty of the Malayalam language, along with rich depictions of the country itself:
A brainfever bird calls out: Kezhekketha? Kezhekketha? Which way is east? Which way is east? She imagines the bird looking down at the clearing where the rectangular thatched roof squats over their house. It sees the lagoon in front and the creek and the paddy field behind. The bird’s cry can go on for hours, depriving them of sleep . . . but just then it is cut off abruptly, as though a cobra has snuck up on it. In the silence that follows, the creek sings no lullaby, only grumbling over the polished pebbles.
And of course, Verghese demonstrates his gift in rendering the medical details, never shying away from the horrors of the body and finding the beauty of medical practice, especially surgery. However, for all the care taken in creating this nuanced picture of the homeland, the novel’s central characters fade into the background.
Big Ammachi, who we meet as a twelve-year-old bride and follow throughout her life, is steadfast and honest, intensely loyal, but she rarely challenges expectations as the woman of the house and the status quo. She learns her role and sticks to it, even and as a woman representing not only her family, but the matriarchal traditions of Kerala itself, she is far from the novel’s most interesting character. Similarly, Philipose, her wayward son, lacks agency at pivotal points of the story, and his errors are rarely challenged in any significant manner, especially after the collapse of his most pivotal relationships. Some of the novel’s most dynamic characters do not appear until more than halfway through the book. The decisions made by these characters, to go against societal expectation and further their own wills and wants, are what ultimately drive the plot and quicken the pace of the second half of the novel, while the first half trudges along. Of course, one can chalk this up to changing social mores and expanding opportunities for women, but attributing inaction up to a ‘product of the time’ is far too simple for a writer of Verghese’s caliber. One can easily imagine how Big Ammachi and Philipose might serve as more active characters while still maintaining their societal roles, and exploring these contradictions would likely lead to a more engaging first half of the story.
Another digression Verghese makes are the chapters devoted to European visitors and physicians. While the examination of the Anglo-Indian identity is compelling, and is somewhat reminiscent of M.M. Kaye’s early 20th century tomes, this distracts from the family story at the heart of the novel. The European characters are ultimately strangers to this land, as are most of Verghese’s readers, but what does this reveal to those of us who are not strangers? In short, who are his readers, and what does his own concept of this audience reveal about the work itself?
The decision on how much or how little to divulge about a chosen setting is intensely personal, and for someone with firsthand experience of Kerala, his explanations of village life and italicizing of Malayalam terms may be irksome, but this could assist new, unaccustomed readers when encountering the text. There is also a warm joy in experiencing a detailed, loving history of one’s ancestral people, a joy which cannot be undermined. But with just a small number of works centering Kerala relevant in the western world, comparisons to these others are inevitable. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, perhaps the most famous novel taking place in Kerala, is able to blend the sociopolitical and historical with intense character portraits. Verghese’s prior novel, Cutting for Stone, takes place in other locations but is similarly expansive, with its focus never leaving the Stone twins and their atypical coming of age. Ultimately, The Covenant of Water is as sweeping and ambitious as his earlier work, and serves as a detailed portrait of twentieth-century Kerala. However, it doesn’t attain the emotional resonance expected due to the inaction of central characters, disjointed pacing, and attention paid to the exterior point of view rather than honing in on the interior. Still, longtime readers can still trust in Verghese’s lush prose and attention to detail, and a propulsive denouement makes much of the narrative worth its page count.
The Covenant of Water
By Abraham Verghese
Published May 2, 2023
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms