Oprah Winfrey has selected “The Covenant of Water,” written by acclaimed author Abraham Verghese, as her newest book club pick.
Winfrey announced her choice on “CBS Mornings” Tuesday and revealed her excitement about the selection, saying in a press release, “This is a novel of epic proportions that takes us through love, loss, family secrets and global history. The scope of this novel is truly breathtaking, and I couldn’t put the book down until the very last page.”
“The Covenant of Water” is a highly anticipated new release from Verghese, renowned for his word-of-mouth bestseller “Cutting for Stone,” which has captivated over 1.5 million readers in the United States alone and remained on The New York Times Best Sellers list for more than two years.
Set in Kerala, a picturesque coastal region in South India, the novel spans from 1900 to 1977 and follows three generations of a family burdened by an unusual affliction: in each generation, at least one person meets a tragic fate by drowning.
Read an excerpt and reading group guide below.
Excerpted from The Covenant of Water © 2023 by Abraham Verghese. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
1900, Travancore, South India
She is twelve years old, and she will be married in the morning. Mother and daughter lie on the mat, their wet cheeks glued together.
“The saddest day of a girl’s life is the day of her wedding,” her mother says. “After that, God willing, it gets better.”
Soon she hears her mother’s sniffles change to steady breathing, then to the softest of snores, which in the girl’s mind seem to impose order on the scattered sounds of the night, from the wooden walls exhaling the day’s heat to the scuffing sound of the dog in the sandy courtyard outside.
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.
She awakes before dawn while her mother still sleeps. Through the window, the water in the paddy field shimmers like beaten silver. On the front verandah, her father’s ornate charu kasera, or lounging chair, sits forlorn and empty. She lifts the writing pallet that straddles the long wooden arms and seats herself. She feels her father’s ghostly impression preserved in the cane weave.
On the banks of the lagoon four coconut trees grow sideways, skimming the water as if to preen at their reflections before straightening to the heavens. Goodbye, lagoon. Goodbye, creek.
“Molay?” her father’s only brother had said the previous day, to her surprise. Of late he wasn’t in the habit of using the endearment molay—daughter—with her. “We found a good match for you!” His tone was oily, as though she were four, not twelve. “Your groom values the fact that you’re from a good family, a priest’s daughter.” She knew her uncle had been looking to get her married off for a while, but she still felt he was rushing to arrange this match. What could she say? Such matters were decided by adults. The helplessness on her mother’s face embarrassed her. She felt pity for her mother, when she so wanted to feel respect. Later, when they were alone, her mother said, “Molay, this is no longer our house. Your uncle . . .” She was pleading, as if her daughter had protested. Her words had trailed off, her eyes darting around nervously. The lizards on the walls carried tales. “How different from here can life be there? You’ll feast at Christmas, fast for Lent . . . church on Sundays. The same Eucharist, the same coconut palms and coffee bushes. It’s a fine matc . . . He’s of good means.”
Why would a man of good means marry a girl of little means, a girl without a dowry? What are they keeping secret from her? What does he lack? Youth, for one—he’s forty. He already has a child. A few days before, after the marriage broker had come and gone, she overheard her uncle chastise her mother, saying, “So what if his aunt drowned? Is that the same as a family history of lunacy? Whoever heard of a family with a history of drownings? Others are always jealous of a good match and they’ll find one thing to exaggerate “
Seated in his chair, she strokes the polished arms, and thinks for a moment of her father’s forearms; like most Malayali men he’d been a lovable bear, hair on arms, chest, and even his back, so one never touched skin except through soft fur. On his lap, in this chair, she learned her letters. When she did well in the church school, he said, “You have a good head. But being curious is even more important. High school for you. College, too! Why not? I won’t let you marry young like your mother.”
The bishop had posted her father to a troubled church near Mundakayam that had no steady achen because the Mohammedan traders had caused mischief. It wasn’t a place for family, with morning mist still nibbling at the knees at midday and rising to the chin by evening, and where dampness brought on wheezing, rheumatism, and fevers. Less than a year into his posting he returned with teeth-chattering chills, his skin hot to the touch, his urine running black. Before they could get help, his chest stopped moving. When her mother held a mirror to his lips, it didn’t mist. Her father’s breath was now just air.
That was the saddest day of her life. How could marriage be worse?
She rises from the cane seat for the last time. Her father’s chair and his teak platform bed inside are like a saint’s relics for her; they retain the essence of him. If only she might take them to her new home.
The household stirs.
She wipes her eyes, squares her shoulders, lifts her chin, lifts it to whatever this day will bring, to the unloveliness of parting, to leaving her home that is home no longer. The chaos and hurt in God’s world are unfathomable mysteries, yet the Bible shows her that there is order beneath. As her father would say, “Faith is to know the pattern is there, even though none is visible.”
“I’ll be all right, Appa,” she says, picturing his distress. If he were alive she wouldn’t be getting married today.
She imagines his reply. A father’s worries end with a good husband. I pray he’s that. But this I know: the same God who watched over you here will be with you there, molay. He promises us this in the Gospels. “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
Reading Group Guide by Jennifer Baker
The Covenant of Water begins in South India at the turn of the twentieth century on the eve of an arranged marriage. Initially, the young bride and her much older husband are nameless, while those around them are named. What effect does this create in your introduction to the main characters and how they evolve over time? When the bride is bequeathed the name “Big Ammachi” (p. 64) by her stepson, how does she grow into her title?
Big Ammachi finds out about “the Condition” that runs through her new family by means of dramatic tragedy, even though her husband and JoJo’s aversion to water was evident early on. What impact do the circumstances of “the Condition” have on the decisions each generation makes for their future?
In what ways does the novel constitute an “epic”? What other genres do you identify in the novel?
For Digby and Philipose, expectations are passed down to them from their mothers. Digby’s mother tells him, “It’s only you bein’ top o’ the class that gets me through this hell. I dream o’ yer success” (p. 87), while Big Ammachi thinks of her son, “How wonderful if his stubborn determination turned into a quest to cure the Condition!” (p. 229). How are Digby and Philipose continually plagued by alternate paths, even after finding their apparent callings? Do these men come to terms with their decisions?
Professions come to define many of the characters in The Covenant of Water: there are doctors, writers, domestic workers, and other laborers within these pages. How do the attributes of these characters reflect their work, as well as come to define their passions and personalities? Who is allowed to choose a profession freely in the novel, and whose futures are foretold from their birth?
In what ways do diagnoses change the trajectory of the lives of the characters? Do some characters experience a fear of being ostracized, either for themselves or for those they care about? How do characters view those labeled or seen as “afflicted” throughout the novel? Do those labels appear to inhibit characters, or allow them a different kind of freedom from community standards?
Discuss the marriage of Elsie and Philipose. What traits of each character may have contributed to the rifts in their relationship? How did the couple and those around them attempt to mend the marriage?
Consider how geography affects destiny for these characters. From Parambil to Madras to Scotland, Verghese’s characters often find or seek refuge away from their original shores. In what ways is a sense of home and belonging threaded throughout the novel, and how do characters like Big Ammachi, Digby, Elsie, and Mariamma connect to or disconnect from the places where they were born and the homes where they eventually settle?
How does grief manifest for Digby over the years as he witnesses the decline of the women he loves? How does this compare to periods of grief for other characters?
Both Elsie and her daughter Mariamma face discrimination in their professional pursuits. How do these women push back against the misogynistic cultures they face? In what ways had they been assured that they deserved to pursue careers as an artist and a doctor, respectively?
A hospital in the Parambil community is an ever-present need, especially as preventable losses recur throughout the generations. What impediments—financial, social, bureaucratic—prevented the hospital from being constructed? Does the eventual construction of the hospital seem to be part of the destiny of the family at Parambil?
Throughout The Covenant of Water, various characters act as caretakers and demonstrate healing abilities. In what ways does healing intertwine with the practice of medicine for the salvation of characters?
Spanning about eighty years, The Covenant of Water depicts several political and environmental events that impact the characters in different ways. How do the politics of the world around them lead to the diverging philosophies of Mariamma and Lenin Evermore regarding how to help their people and nation at large? Which environmental events do you think had deep repercussions for other members of Mariamma and Lenin’s families over the years?
How does Verghese illustrate the changes and consistency of segregation and the caste system in India over the decades? Did you find parallels between the treatment of lepers by outsiders of St. Bridget’s and the caste divides of the characters in the spaces they reside throughout South India? How are the tensions of caste and class resolved, if at all?
How does the institution of marriage evolve over the course of the decades in the novel? How do the relationships and marriages at the end of the novel compare and contrast to that of Big Ammachi and her husband?
Suggestions for further reading:
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul