Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Covenant of Water

by Abraham Verghese

OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB PICK • INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • SUBJECT OF A SIX-PART SUPER SOUL PODCAST SERIES HOSTED BY OPRAH WINFREY • From the New York Times-bestselling author of Cutting for Stone comes a stunning and magisterial epic of love, faith, and medicine, set in Kerala, South India, following three generations of a family seeking the answers to a strange secret

  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 736
  • Publication Date May 02, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6217-5
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $32.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Publication Date May 02, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6218-2
  • US List Price $28.00


The Covenant of Water is the long-awaited new novel by Abraham Verghese, the author of the major word-of-mouth bestseller Cutting for Stone, which has sold over 1.5 million copies in the United States alone and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years.

Spanning the years 1900 to 1977, The Covenant of Water is set in Kerala, on South India’s Malabar Coast, and follows three generations of a family that suffers a peculiar affliction: in every generation, at least one person dies by drowning—and in Kerala, water is everywhere. At the turn of the century, a twelve-year-old girl from Kerala’s long-existing Christian community, grieving the death of her father, is sent by boat to her wedding, where she will meet her forty-year-old husband for the first time. From this unforgettable new beginning, the young girl—and future matriarch, known as Big Ammachi—will witness unthinkable changes over the span of her extraordinary life, full of joy and triumph as well as hardship and loss, her faith and love the only constants.

A shimmering evocation of a bygone India and of the passage of time itself, The Covenant of Water is a hymn to progress in medicine and to human understanding, and a humbling testament to the difficulties undergone by past generations for the sake of those alive today. It is one of the most masterful literary novels published in recent years.

Tags Literary

Praise for The Covenant of Water:

Winner of the Golden Poppy Award for Fiction
Longlisted for the New American Voices Award
An Instant New York Times Bestseller

Named One of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of the Year
Named the #7 Best Book of the Year by Amazon

New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
Named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, TIME, NPR, San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, Apple, Minnesota Public Radio, Washington Independent Review of Books, and Chicago Public Library
Named a Most Anticipated Book by the Washington Post, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Oprah Daily, Publishers Weekly (Top 10), Literary Hub, and BookPage

“One of the best books I’ve read in my entire life. It’s epic. It’s transportive . . . It was unputdownable!”—Oprah Winfrey, OprahDaily.com

“A rich, heartfelt novel . . . A lavish smorgasbord of genealogy, medicine and love affairs, tracing a family’s evolution from 1900 through the 1970s, in pointillist detail . . . 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 . . . Verghese’s technical strengths are consistent and versatile: crisp, taut pacing, sensuous descriptions that can fan out into rhapsody . . . 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 . . . Rich and reverberant. The further into the novel readers sink, the more power it accrues . . . Grandly ambitious, impassioned . . . A magnificent feat.”—Joan Frank, Washington Post

“Grand, spectacular, sweeping and utterly absorbing . . . It is a better world for having a book in it that chronicles so many tragedies in a tone that never deviates from hope.”—Andrew Solomon, New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“An immense, immersive work, brimming with interconnected storylines that meander and converge like great river tributaries . . . The novel encompasses intense passion and tragedy, as well as a medical mystery . . . An essential, even healing feat of imagination, a whole world to get lost in.”—Anderson Tepper, Los Angeles Times

“Much will be written about Abraham Verghese’s multigenerational South Indian novel in the coming months and years. As we’ve seen with Verghese’s earlier fiction, there will be frequent references to that other celebrated doctor-writer, Anton Chekhov. There will also be continued invocations of the likes of Charles Dickens and George Eliot to describe Verghese’s ambitious literary scope and realism. Indeed, the literary feats in The Covenant of Water deserve to be lauded as much as those of such canonical authors . . . Ever the skillful surgeon, Verghese threads meaningful connections between macrocosmic and microcosmic details so elegantly that they are often barely noticeable at first.”—Jenny Bhatt, NPR

“Riveting . . . This is a novel—a splendid, enthralling one—about the body, about what characters inherit and what makes itself felt upon them. It is the body that contains ambiguities and mysteries. As in his international bestseller Cutting for Stone, Verghese’s medical knowledge and his mesmerising attention to detail combine to create breathtaking, edge-of-your-seat scenes of survival and medical procedures that are difficult to forget. Tenderness permeates every page, at the same time as he is ruthless with the many ways his characters are made vulnerable by simply being alive. Those scenes when a person must fight for their life make for some of the most gripping episodes that I have read in some time.”—Maaza Mengiste, The Guardian

“In the spirit of his breakout novel, Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese offers an epic melodrama of medicine . . . The miraculous melds naturally with medicine in The Covenant of Water, whether in the form of artistic inspiration or religious awakening . . . Most remarkably, this depth of emotion comes across even in descriptions of surgery, which one would expect to be faceless and technical, if not merely sickening. But not so in the taut depiction of a skin graft for a burn victim or a trepanning procedure to relieve a man’s swollen brain of fluid.”—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

“Over the course of three generations, two seemingly disparate, deeply connected narratives unfold in an ode to India, family, and medical marvels.”—TIME

“[A] surreal and sweeping epic.”—Vanity Fair

“Life unspools across seven decades, during which time Big Ammachi’s loved ones suffer maladies that are treated by practitioners of both traditional and Western medicine. The novel is a searching consideration of the extent to which seemingly contrary approaches to healing can coalesce.”—New Yorker, “Briefly Noted”

“Wow. This novel is long but Abraham Verghese is a master . . . A brutally intimate look at a mother’s love and the power of family, The Covenant of Water will go down as a classic.”—Zibby Owens, Good Morning America

“This book is gorgeous and truly immersive . . . I’m sad it’s over.”—Ann Napolitano, author of the New York Times bestseller Hello Beautiful

“When you come to the end of Abraham Verghese’s new novel, The Covenant of Water, you will feel that you have lived among the Indian and Anglo-Indian characters who populate its pages for almost a century. It’s that long. But it’s also that immersive—appropriately enough for a book so steeped in the medium and metaphor of water, as the title suggests . . . These lives, so finely drawn and intensely felt, are at once singular and inextricably bound together within the immensity of fate and faith—like ‘the water that connects them all in time and space and always has.’”—Ellen Akins, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Fourteen years in the making, Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water was worth the wait . . . A massive achievement. Rarely can such an intricate story, following a dozen major characters over more than 70 years, be described as flying by, but this one does . . . [Verghese] goes deeply into the history and culture of southern India while telling a story so engaging and lyrical it never seems academic . . . The Covenant of Water is a rousing good story, full of joy and tragedy and humor and beauty and ugliness—sometimes all at once . . . Verghese is a master at keeping these disparate characters on parallel paths that converge down the line. If you ever think he is wandering astray, be assured that he isn’t. All will come together in the end in a way that may make you gasp in appreciation. Throughout, Verghese woos us with beautiful language.”—Gail Pennington, Saint Louis Post-Dispatch

“Sweeping, intimate yet vast . . . Languorous and often lyrical, morally ambitious.”—Priscilla Gilman, Boston Globe

“Some of the more enjoyable hours of my summer were spent reading Abraham Verghese’s novel The Covenant of Water. In addition to its many pleasures—the richness of its sense of place, its kaleidoscope of characters, its humour—I was particularly drawn into it as a kind of love letter to the practice of medicine . . . The Covenant of Water felt like a call to arms, a plea to reimagine what medicine can be.”—Daniel Mason, The Mail on Sunday

“Beautiful, brilliant, and dexterously rendered . . . Characters so compellingly drawn that even now I can’t stop thinking about them.”—Susan Balée, Hudson Review

Cutting for Stone fans, rejoice! Abraham Verghese is back with another grand epic that will sweep you off your feet . . . Resounding and astounding, intimate and expansive . . . Filled with shimmery, charismatic people who love deeply and dream big, The Covenant of Water is an entirely magnetic read that you won’t want to end.—Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review

“A family in Kerala, India, is affected with the Condition: Each generation one person dies by drowning. For more than 70 years Big Ammachi survives tragedy and triumph, growing from a 12-year-old bride into the matriarch as her country also comes into its own.”—Kate Tuttle, People, “Best New Books”

“Ever since Cutting for Stone, we have been eagerly awaiting another book by Abraham Verghese, and what a breathtaking return this is . . . An extraordinary look at what past generations have endured for the sake of the present, Verghese’s tribute to 20th century India is a literary feat you won’t want to miss.”—Brittany Bunzey, Barnes & Noble Reads

“Come to this epic novel by Verghese for the history of Kerala, India; stay for the devoted elephant. The bestselling author (and Stanford doctor) recounts the Parambil family’s ups and downs through a century of change, interlaying some of his medical expertise but never losing his commitment to how love allows people—and sometimes beasts—to choose goodness and care over politics and brutality.”—Los Angeles Times

“Breathtaking . . . The book beautifully explores the lessons we learn from our ancestors in an always changing world.”—Real Simple

“Abraham Verghese is a masterful writer. Each page in this massive book features exquisite descriptions, evocations of a particular time and place, populated by fascinating characters . . . A gem of a book.”—New York Journal of Books

“A novel so rich, so heavy with wisdom, authentic and fabricated history, and family stories snaking back through the years and heavy wet vines and red soil, between the stocky legs of Damodaran, the elephant who stands guard at Parambil . . . Allow yourself to become immersed in the laughter and tears, and discover the unclaimed secrets of this epic, wonderful novel.”—Book Reporter

“An unforgettable journey of faith, medicine and love . . . A lush, literary masterpiece—written with a surgeon’s skill and an artist’s eye—that delivers a rich, emotional return on the reader’s investment.”—BookBrowse

“Both a compassionate family saga and an account of medicine, politics, art, women’s rights, and the legacy of British colonialism in India . . . 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.”—Shelf Awareness

“Three generations of a South Indian family are marked by passions and peccadillos, conditions and ambitions, interventions both medical and divine . . . As in the bestselling and equally weighty Cutting for Stone, the fiction debut by Verghese (who’s also a physician), the medical procedures and advances play a central role—scenes of hand surgery and brain surgery are narrated with the same enthusiastic detail as scenes of lovemaking. A few times along this very long journey one may briefly wonder, Is all this really necessary? What a joy to say it is, to experience the exquisite, uniquely literary delight of all the pieces falling into place in a way one really did not see coming . . . By God, he’s done it again.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A literary landmark, a monumental treatment of family and country, as sprawling in scope as Edna Ferber’s Giant . . . Writing with compassion and insight, Verghese creates distinct characters in Dickensian profusion, and his language is striking; even graphic descriptions of medical procedures are beautifully wrought. Throughout, there are joy, courage, and devotion, as well as tragedy; always there is water, the covenant that links all.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“Instantly and utterly absorbing is the so-worth-the-wait new novel by the author of Cutting for Stone . . . Verghese—who gifts the matriarch his mother’s name and even some of her stories—illuminates colonial history, challenges castes and classism, and exposes injustices, all while spectacularly spinning what will undoubtedly be one of the most lauded, awarded, best-selling novels of the year.”—Terry Hong, Booklist (starred review)

“Breathtaking . . . By the end, Verghese perfectly connects the wandering threads . . . Verghese outdoes himself with this grand and stunning tribute to 20th-century India.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A masterpiece. Put it on your bookcase next to A Passage to India by E.M. Forster or anything by the brave and brilliant Salman Rushdie. Indeed, put it next to any great novel of your choice. Sprawling, passionate, tragic and comedic at turns . . . Verghese, probably the best doctor-writer since Anton Chekhov, upends all of our expectations . . . You won’t want it to end.”—BookPage (starred review)

“Reading The Covenant of Water I felt as if I’d been plunged into an atmosphere thicker than air, or as if I was swimming in a sea of stories, each more intense and unforgettable than the last.”—Sandra Cisneros, author of Woman Without Shame

“From the very first page of Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water, I was overtaken with joy. Truly, I caught my breath, absorbing such beauty. What a sure faith this novel is—what an agreement with language. What a glorious story of land and family. What a brilliant path written across generations.”—Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

The Covenant of Water is a brilliant novel, one I feel lucky to experience. It is enthralling; its conjured worlds vigorous and astonishing; its characters so real they call me back to their lives. I wanted to read this book for whole days and nights, and do little else.”—Megha Majumdar, author of A Burning

“This majestic, sweeping story of family secrets—their curse, their legacy, and their cure—is intimate and profound. Abraham Verghese takes us on a journey across nearly a century and more than one continent, all the while dazzling with his rich, elegant prose. Verghese is a literary legend at the height of his extraordinary powers.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Signal Fires

“A novel of utter beauty, The Covenant of Water is worthy of all praise in its depiction of medical ingenuity and family love; it is epic and eye-opening, the sort of story that only a singular mind like Abraham Verghese’s could have woven.”—Imbolo Mbue, author of How Beautiful We Were

“Abraham Verghese makes good on the novelist’s covenant with the reader—trust me with your attention and I will reward you with a tale worth inhabiting. With a plot both deliciously languorous and breathtakingly taut, Verghese takes us on a monumental journey over generations and continents, over languages and cultures, across tendons and sinews, and through to human nature at its beating heart. It left me breathless and pining for more.”—Danielle Ofri, author of What Doctors Feel

Praise for Cutting for Stone:

“A winner . . . Filled with mystical scenes and deeply felt characters . . . Verghese is something of a magician as a novelist.”—USA Today

“Beautiful . . . Amazing.”—New Yorker

“Verghese creates this story so lovingly that it is actually possible to live within it for the brief time one spends with this book. You may never leave the chair.”—Los Angeles Times

“Tremendous . . . Vivid and thrilling . . . I feel lucky to have gotten to read it.”—Atul Gawande

“Absorbing, exhilarating.”—Seattle Times

“Engrossing . . . Endearing . . . A passionate, vivid, and informative novel.” —Boston Globe

“The novel is full of compassion and wise vision . . . I feel I changed forever after reading this book.”—Sandra Cisneros, San Antonio Express-News

“Stupendous . . . An epic medical romance, surgery meets history. Beautiful and deeply affecting.”—Financial Times

“Vivid . . . Cutting for Stone shines.”—Washington Post Book World

“A masterpiece . . . Verghese expertly weaves the threads of numerous story lines into one cohesive opus.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Vastly entertaining and enlightening.”—Tracy Kidder

“Wildly imaginative . . . A lovely ode to the medical profession.”—Entertainment Weekly

“Compelling . . . Readers will put this novel down at book’s end knowing that it will stick with them for a long time to come.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Fantastic . . . Written with a lyrical flair, told through a compassionate first-person point of view, and rich with medical insight and information.”—Houston Chronicle



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

Guide by Jennifer Baker

1. 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?

2. 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?

3. In what ways does the novel constitute an “epic”? What other genres do you identify in the novel?

4. 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?

5. 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?

6. 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?

7. 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?

8. 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?

9. 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?

10. 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?

11. 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?

12. 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?

13. 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?

14. 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?

15. 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

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