Abraham Verghese's sprawling second novel, The Covenant of Water, traces the epic story of a family in southern India afflicted by a mysterious condition: at least one person in every generation dies by drowning.
Verghese (Cutting for Stone) sets his story in the small community of Saint Thomas Christians in Kerala, centered on the estate of Parambil. When a 12-year-old child bride--unnamed, but literate, unusual for her time--is married off to a 40-year-old widower in 1900, she becomes the surrogate mother to his two-year-old son, JoJo. Disoriented and lonely at first, she will eventually transform into Big Ammachi, the matriarch of Parambil and a wise, steady, thoughtful figure in the lives of the other characters. After a tragedy strikes, Big Ammachi discovers a handwritten document outlining the Condition, the water-related affliction that has affected generations of her husband's family. She can neither prevent nor cure this disease, but seeks to understand it, especially as it comes to affect her son, Philipose, and other family members.
In Part Two, Verghese shifts gears to focus on Digby, a young Scotsman who signs up for the Indian Medical Service after the death of his mother. Digby's destiny will eventually intersect with that of the family at Parambil, via a sanctuary for leprosy patients run by a compassionate Swede named Dr. Rune Orqvist.
Vast in scope and also surprisingly intimate, Verghese's novel covers most of the 20th century in India, but is ultimately the story of a family--blood and chosen--caring for each other through all of life's challenges and changes. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams