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... stories, adventures and all things related to life in Singapore and Southeast Asia by AWA members

AWA Book Review: The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

By Mandakini Arora

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese is monumental, magisterial, and masterful. Inspired by a family history written by the author’s mother, the novel, which is over 700 pages long, spans three-quarters of a century and three generations of a Malayali Christian family in Kerala. Oprah Winfrey, who selected it as her May 2023 book club choice, described the book as one of the best she had ever read. 

The story opens in 1900 with the marriage of twelve-year-old Mariamma to a forty-year-old widower. Despite the shock of separation from her widowed mother, Mariamma is cushioned by the kindness of her husband’s sister and his little son, and of the lower-caste helpers whose family have been bound to her husband’s family for generations. Her husband is a distant figure until their marriage is consummated, five years after they first meet. They develop a warm, respectful relationship.

Kerala is a “world of rivulets and canals, a latticework of lakes and lagoons, a maze of backwaters and bottle-green lotus ponds; a vast circulatory system.” Yet the house is set back from a river—“a landlocked dwelling in a land of water, a house full of mysteries.” Mariamma discovers a Condition in her husband’s family, afflicting more men than women. Water is deadly for those with the Condition. As she grows into the role of family matriarch Mariamma learns, from a genealogy, of several deaths by drowning over the ages.

In a parallel story, we meet Digby Kilgour, an ocean away in Glasgow. From a deprived Scottish childhood, he grows to be an artist and doctor, joins the colonial Indian Medical Service, and travels to Madras in 1933.

Medicine—medical conditions, education, research, and skills—features prominently in the novel, unsurprisingly given that Verghese is a professor of medicine at Stanford University and a physician. A few of the book’s characters are doctors, including Mariamma’s granddaughter and namesake. The book ends with the younger Mariamma stumbling on startling information about her family, which ties together seemingly disparate threads running through the book.

Verghese’s research, knowledge, and creative talent are awesome, more so for me than the totality of the book. I found the sometimes-wayward stories overwhelming. Perhaps because I read the book over a few weeks and not at one go, I lost track of minor characters and had forgotten the details of Digby’s life when he reappeared after having disappeared from the story for a while. 

There is much to appreciate in the novel—strong, inspiring women; accessibly articulated medical information; a rich historical context of colonialism, war, national independence, and Communist insurgency; likable characters; a subtle showing of caste dynamics even among Christian converts from Hinduism; vivid settings; dramatic events; and a satisfying ending. 

While the whole was less than the sum of its parts, I am happy to have read the book and even happier that we will discuss it in our AWA book club. The Covenant of Water offers a wealth of material for debate and discussion.


​Mandakini co-chairs the AWA Writers’ Group, which meets on the second and fourth Thursday morning of every month. She is a historian who enjoys reading and writing stories and browsing in secondhand bookstores. Read her book reviews here and on Instagram: @travelling_bookmark.


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AWA members are women who come from many countries and life experiences but they all have one thing in common — they have chosen to live in Singapore. Some members are new to Singapore,  while some have been here a long time or have returned to Singapore after time away. Our magazine - written and curated by AWA members - focuses on a diverse range of topics including wellness and family, travel tips, cultural events and information, and other helpful tips around navigating and experiencing life in Singapore to it's fullest. 

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