Family saga looks like another, stomach-churning success for Abraham Verghese

17 November 2023 - 09:52
By Margaret von Klemperer
'The Covenant of Water' by Abraham Verghese.
Image: Supplied 'The Covenant of Water' by Abraham Verghese.

The Covenant of Water
Abraham Verghese
Grove Press UK

Following his popular success with Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese has written an ambitious and lengthy family saga, stretching from 1900 to the 1970s and set mainly in the Kerala area of India.

The novel opens with a 12-year-old girl being taken away from her family and sent to marry a widower many years her senior. She is eventually to become one of the main characters, the matriarch of her family, known as Big Ammachi. But, at the outset, she is a frightened child.

Members of the family she has married into, including her forbidding husband and young stepson, suffer from what the family calls “the Condition”. It manifests as a fear of water, and in every generation there will be drownings.

Meanwhile, running parallel to the story of Big Ammachi and her family is that of Digby Kilgour, growing up in the slums of Glasgow in the aftermath of World War 1, but finally overcoming the odds to train as a doctor. However, his social standing in Britain, with its class system, takes him to British-ruled India, where, as he wryly notes, he will be one of the oppressors rather than the oppressed.

Digby becomes a skilled and compassionate surgeon until a drama in his personal life and a terrible accident put an end to his career. Verghese then leaves him to return to the other strand of his story. Ultimately, the two will mesh in the climax of the book, but there will be many vicissitudes and tragedies – some signalled a little too obviously in advance - in both streams before that happens.

The Covenant of Water is a substantial novel, and there is a lot to enjoy and admire. The descriptive writing is of a high order, and many of the characters are appealing, not least Big Ammachi, her doctor granddaughter Mariamma and Digby. The author also handles the intense politics of the time with skill. But with such a wide scope to the story, there is altogether too much extraneous detail, much of which inhibits the thrust of the novel, leaving characters in limbo for too long a stretch. Some judicious pruning, particularly of the stomach-churning medical detail, would have helped. But that said, for those prepared to settle down for the long haul, this looks like being another success for Verghese.