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The Covenant of Water: A Novel
Abraham Verghese


From the New York Times-bestselling author of Cutting for Stone comes a stunning and magisterial epic of love, faith, and medicine, set in Kerala, South India, following three generations of a family seeking the answers to a strange secret

“One of the best books I’ve read in my entire life. It’s epic. It’s transportive... It was unputdownable!” — Oprah Winfrey,

Verghese’s first novel since 2008’s bestselling Cutting for Stone is a gorgeous and unforgettable epic about a family in South India where at least one member of each generation dies by drowning. Spanning three generations, Covenant of Water is a beautiful tribute to the sacrifices previous generations make for the sake of those who come after them.

The Covenant of Water is the long-awaited new novel by Abraham Verghese, the author of the major word-of-mouth bestseller Cutting for Stone, which has sold over 1.5 million copies in the United States alone and remained 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. At the turn of the century, a twelve-year-old girl from Kerala’s long-existing Christian community, grieving the death of her father, is sent by boat to her wedding, where she will meet her forty-year-old husband for the first time. From this unforgettable new beginning, the young girl—and future matriarch, known as Big Ammachi—will witness unthinkable changes over the span of her extraordinary life, full of joy and triumph as well as hardship and loss, her faith and love the only constants.
A shimmering evocation of a bygone 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 difficulties undergone by past generations for the sake of those alive today. It is one of the most masterful literary novels published in recent years.
Abraham Verghese (born 1955) is an American physician, author and Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine and Vice Chair of Education at Stanford University Medical School. He is the author of four best-selling books: two memoirs and two novels. In 2011, he was elected to be a member of the Institute of Medicine. He received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2015. He is the co-host with Eric Topol of the podcast Medscape Medicine and the Machine.

Verghese’s breathtaking latest (after Cutting for Stone) follows several generations of a South Indian family as they search for the roots of a curse. The watery setting of Travancore (later Kerala) is described in dreamlike terms, with “rivulets and canals, a latticework of lakes and lagoons, a maze of backwaters and bottle-green lotus ponds.” There, a member of the Parambil family has drowned in each of the last three generations. The story begins in 1900 when a 12-year-old girl, who becomes known as Big Ammachi, marries a 40-year-old widower with a two-year-old son, JoJo. Big Ammachi sees the curse firsthand after discovering JoJo drowned at 10 in an irrigation ditch. At 16, she gives birth to Baby Mol, a daughter gifted with prophecy, and then to a son, Philipose, who becomes a newspaper columnist and marries Elsie, a beautiful and talented artist. They live in Big Ammachi’s loving home with their son, Ninan, until an accident sends the couple reeling. Philipose becomes an opium addict and Elsie returns to her family, but they reunite briefly and have a daughter, Mariamma, until another tragedy leaves newborn Mariamma motherless. A parallel narrative involves Scottish surgeon Digby Kilgour, who runs a leprosarium, and by the end, Verghese perfectly connects the wandering threads. Along the way, Mariamma becomes a neurosurgeon and seeks the cause of the drownings, and the author handily depicts Mariamma’s intricate brain surgeries and Kilgour’s skin graft treatments, along with political turmoil when the Maoist Naxalite movement hits close to home. Verghese outdoes himself with this grand and stunning tribute to 20th-century India. -- Publishers Weekly

“A rich, heartfelt novel . . . A lavish smorgasbord of genealogy, medicine and love affairs, tracing a family’s evolution from 1900 through the 1970s, in pointillist detail . . . What binds and drives this vast, intricate history as it patiently unspools are vibrant characters, sensuous detail and an intimate tour of cultures, landscapes and mores across eras . . . Verghese’s technical strengths are consistent and versatile: crisp, taut pacing, sensuous descriptions that can fan out into rhapsody . . . Verghese’s compassion for his ensemble, which subtly multiplies, infuses every page. So does his ability to inhabit a carousel of sensibilities—including those of myriad women—with penetrating insight and empathy . . . Rich and reverberant. The further into the novel readers sink, the more power it accrues . . . Grandly ambitious, impassioned . . . A magnificent feat.” -- Joan Frank, Washington Post

“Grand, spectacular, sweeping and utterly absorbing . . . It is a better world for having a book in it that chronicles so many tragedies in a tone that never deviates from hope.” -- Andrew Solomon, New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“An immense, immersive work, brimming with interconnected storylines that meander and converge like great river tributaries . . . The novel encompasses intense passion and tragedy, as well as a medical mystery . . . An essential, even healing feat of imagination, a whole world to get lost in.” -- Anderson Tepper, Los Angeles Times

“Much will be written about Abraham Verghese’s multigenerational South Indian novel in the coming months and years. As we’ve seen with Verghese’s earlier fiction, there will be frequent references to that other celebrated doctor-writer, Anton Chekhov. There will also be continued invocations of the likes of Charles Dickens and George Eliot to describe Verghese’s ambitious literary scope and realism. Indeed, the literary feats in The Covenant of Water deserve to be lauded as much as those of such canonical authors . . . Ever the skillful surgeon, Verghese threads meaningful connections between macrocosmic and microcosmic details so elegantly that they are often barely noticeable at first.” -- Jenny Bhatt, NPR

“Riveting . . . This is a novel—a splendid, enthralling one—about the body, about what characters inherit and what makes itself felt upon them. It is the body that contains ambiguities and mysteries. As in his international bestseller Cutting for Stone, Verghese’s medical knowledge and his mesmerising attention to detail combine to create breathtaking, edge-of-your-seat scenes of survival and medical procedures that are difficult to forget. Tenderness permeates every page, at the same time as he is ruthless with the many ways his characters are made vulnerable by simply being alive. Those scenes when a person must fight for their life make for some of the most gripping episodes that I have read in some time.” -- Maaza Mengiste, The Guardian

“In the spirit of his breakout novel, Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese offers an epic melodrama of medicine . . . The miraculous melds naturally with medicine in The Covenant of Water, whether in the form of artistic inspiration or religious awakening . . . Most remarkably, this depth of emotion comes across even in descriptions of surgery, which one would expect to be faceless and technical, if not merely sickening. But not so in the taut depiction of a skin graft for a burn victim or a trepanning procedure to relieve a man’s swollen brain of fluid.” -- Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

“Over the course of three generations, two seemingly disparate, deeply connected narratives unfold in an ode to India, family, and medical marvels.” -- TIME

[H]  Grove Press  /  May 02, 2023

2.3" H x 9.1" L x 6.4" W (1.98 lbs) 736 pages