Book World: Oprah chose well. Verghese’s ‘The Covenant of Water’ is a rich, heartfelt novel

“The Covenant of Water” by Abraham Verghese.Photo by: Grove. Copyright: Handout
The Covenant of Water, By Abraham Verghese. Grove. 736 pp. $32

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Abraham Verghese – novelist (“Cutting for Stone”), doctor and professor of medicine – introduces his enormous new novel, “The Covenant of Water,” with a personal note to advance readers: His late mother, Mariam, “was an incredible storyteller” who “wrote a forty-page manuscript” in response to a grandchild’s query about her life. “In this novel,” Verghese declares, “I draw on some of those stories.” He dedicates the book – 10 years in the making – to his mother.

I can’t think of a mightier tribute. (Nor, apparently, can Oprah Winfrey, who has just announced this novel as her latest book club pick.) Set in the Kerala state of India, “Covenant” reads like a lavish smorgasbord of genealogy, medicine and love affairs, tracing a family’s evolution from 1900 through the 1970s, in pointillist detail. The family’s dark secret? “In every generation . . . at least one member has drowned unexpectedly” – even though those who sense they’re afflicted with “The Condition” try their utmost never to get wet.

Artfully, Verghese shapes and links successive lives through wars, monsoons, famine (“the fruity, acetone odor of a body consuming itself, the scent of starvation”). Pivotal scenes are intensely physical; intimacy swept up into widescreen pageantry in the manner of “Dr. Zhivago”: floods, fires, pestilence, train journeys, teeming streets, far-flung characters coming face-to-face. Some of these coincidences test credulity – yet their urgency defeats doubt. Likewise, when loss and horror strike, they feel inevitable and real.

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. “Our young bride” – who becomes Big Ammachi (big mother), the saga’s unforgettable matriarchal backbone – rejoices in windfalls (births, friendships, including that of a beloved elephant) and grieves innumerable tragedies (some foreshadowed, others a shock). Local wit lightens up many of the proceedings: “Does he have a cow ready to calve back in the barn? . . . Did he leave the rice on the fire?” (What’s his hurry?) “A crying child is a breathing child.” (Prioritize emergencies.) “If brains were oil, that one didn’t have enough to prime the tiniest lamp.”

Verghese folds in major players, guiding them toward each other: the irresistible Digby Kilgour, a young medical graduate, migrates in 1933 from a nightmare childhood in Glasgow to Madras, India, to gain surgical experience: “The sight of suffering is familiar; its language transcends all borders.” Medical crises incite action throughout the novel, allowing Verghese to tap into his deep experience and endearingly humane philosophy. When Digby, badly burned in an accidental fire, flees to a remote leprosy sanctuary to recover, he is slowly repaired there by the (marvelously drawn) Swedish village doctor Rune Orqvist. These passages provide some of the book’s most moving and revelatory moments. Of Digby’s hands Verghese writes: “The spectacle of these ruined tools of a surgeon’s livelihood fills Rune with sorrow. This is, after all, his own nightmare, though in his dream the culprit is always leprosy. He is overcome. He takes a deep breath. The journey the two of them embark on together must begin with love, Rune thinks. To love the sick – isn’t that always the first step?”

Verghese’s technical strengths are consistent and versatile: crisp, taut pacing, sensuous descriptions that can fan out into rhapsody. Madras’s evening breeze carries “scents of orchids and salt, an airborne opiate that . . . finally lets one forget the brutal heat of the day,” a break from the riotous sense-assault of Madras itself: “odors of cured leather, cotton, dried fish, incense, and salt water, the top notes of the antique scent of this ancient civilization.” Verghese writes sex scenes with striking tenderness, as well as stunning accounts of birth and death struggles, graphic surgeries, mouthwatering food, and keen depictions of class and caste divisions in Glasgow and India.

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. Writerly strokes may occasionally feel broad, but like animate oil paintings, their effect is rich and reverberant. The further into the novel readers sink, the more power it accrues.

Throughout, Verghese painstakingly weaves in his insatiable love for, and belief in, art and literature. When an eccentric neighbor teaches Ammachi’s son Philipose to read – starting with “Moby Dick”- Ammachi wonders: “Isn’t it one big lie?”

“It’s fiction!” thunders the old teacher. “Fiction is the great lie that tells the truth about how the world lives!” Mother and son are quickly converted, hungry to read – and here Verghese secures his opus’s through-line. After reading a book, Philipose explains to Ammachi, “I’ve lived through three generations and learned more about the world and about myself than I do during a year in school. Ahab, Queequeg, Ophelia, and other characters die on the page so that we might live better lives.”

That’s surely its own covenant – a fitting mission statement for this grandly ambitious, impassioned work. “Covenant” is a magnificent feat.

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Joan Frank’s latest books are “Late Work: A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I Was Reading” and “Juniper Street: A Novel.”



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