The Covenant of Water
An engrossing inter-generational story set in lush Kerala, it is easy to see why this made it to the Oprah Book Club. Why she called it 'one of the best books I have read in my entire life' is harder to understand.
Mariamma comes to Parambil as a 12 year old bride to a 40 year old man. Over the next seven decades, she weathers the highs and lows of birthing and nurturing a family, managing a 500 acre property and the changing political climate around her.
There are several strong strands to the stories and characters - Elsie's passion for her art that is the abiding motif of her life, Philippose's passion for Elsie and grief for his son that destabilizes him, the saint-like Rune Orqvist's crusade for leprosy patients, Mariamma junior's quest for the diagnosis of the 'condition' leading her to medical college. Verghese loves the characters he creates and the love is so very visible to the reader.
It's a great big book but Verghese's story telling is so on point and fast paced, the language so evocative of time and place, it's an easy read. I finished it in less than a week.
All the wonderful storytelling notwithstanding, there are obvious weaknesses. The plot has too many co-incidences for one (the characters fortuitously run into each other when needed). Most of the characters are 'good', and terrible things keep happening to them - and it gets to a point where you can almost sense the next tragedy unfolding. There is very little social commentary, and what there is, is pretty superficial - whether it be the caste system or the ills of feudalism that led to the rise of the communists and Naxalites in Kerala. There is absolutely no mention of the sexism inherent in the Mar Thoma communities that led to the landmark Mary Roy case in the 1980s.
Overall, it's a story very well told. But I cannot help but compare this to another great story set in almost the same milieu, again with evocative writing and unforgettable characters - Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. That one though, was an angry book, railing against the casteism, sexism and the political expediency that impacts the individual. It was also a book that made us look at the world differently, from the perspective of the 'small things'.