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Abraham Verghese – The Covenant of Water [Feature Review]

The Covenant of WaterA River Runs Through It

A Feature Review of

The Covenant of Water: A Novel
Abraham Verghese

Hardcover: Grove Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Chris Enstad

In his deeply contemplative and spiritually resonant novel, The Covenant of Water, acclaimed author Abraham Verghese masterfully weaves a tapestry of faith, human connection, and redemption. This literary masterpiece, while exploring the profound complexities of the human condition, holds a special allure for Christian readers who are attuned to the themes of grace, forgiveness, and the transformative power of God’s love.

Set against the backdrop of Kerala, in southwestern rural India, Verghese’s novel introduces us to a diverse cast of characters, each grappling with their own burdens while searching for meaning in a world marked by scarcity and hardship. The novel’s timespan ranges from 1900 to 1977– years of significant changes in the world, and particularly in India.  How these national upheavals affect the people in and around Kerala, from independence and partition up to the early nuclear tests and the testing of the democratic constitution, all reverberate across the realities of personal relationships and histories.  Add to this a deeply embedded caste system and we are present at the intersections of faith and tradition: how do we help each other when we are told the other is less-than-human?

Verghese’s masterful prose invites readers into the intricate lives of these characters, allowing us to witness their struggles and triumphs as they navigate personal demons, societal prejudices, and the universal longing for belonging. Through his evocative descriptions and rich character development, Verghese subtly reveals the threads that bind us all—our shared human experiences, our capacity for empathy, and our potential for redemption.  The central character is known as Big Ammachi, a woman we meet as a child bride whose life becomes the touchstone for this family of St. Thomas Christians; Christians that can trace their roots directly back to the apostle himself.  We watch alongside Ammachi as her family and estate grow and dwindle, all intertwined with a mysterious affliction that causes at least one person per generation to die by drowning.

For Christian readers, The Covenant of Water becomes more than just a novel; it evolves into a contemplative journey that resonates with biblical teachings. The concept of water runs as a powerful motif throughout the narrative. Water, a symbol of purification and rebirth in Christianity, takes on a multifaceted significance in the novel. From the life-giving waters of baptism to the transformative monsoon rains that arrive to quench the village’s thirst, Verghese employs water as a metaphor for God’s grace and the potential for spiritual renewal.  But water also serves as a warning; “covenant” in the book’s title refers to the drowning “condition” that affects Big Ammachi’s family. This “original sin” serves as a powerful reminder of how bondage to fear of death can diminish our own ability to heed our spiritual callings as well as the callings of our neighbors for mutual uplift and care.

Additionally, the novel deftly delves into the concept of forgiveness—a cornerstone of Christian theology. As characters grapple with past mistakes, painful memories, and regrets, Verghese showcases the liberating power of forgiveness in the healing process. Death, with its attendant griefs and blame, can shatter love, trust, and hope.  Reconciliation takes place in this novel interpersonally, but also internally in profound ways.

The Covenant of Water is a call to embrace the connections that bind humanity together, regardless of cultural or religious differences. In a world often marked by division, this novel resonates as a poignant reminder of our shared humanity. Through the characters’ interactions, Verghese underscores the profound truth that every person, regardless of their background, is a beloved creation of God. This remarkable achievement in contemporary literature invites Christian readers to embark on a soul-stirring journey of faith, hope, and redemption. Through vivid imagery, relatable characters, and a narrative that captures the essence of the human experience, Abraham Verghese offers a powerful reminder of the unifying force of God’s love. As readers immerse themselves in the pages of this profound novel, they will inevitably find themselves drawn into the covenant of water—a covenant that speaks to the very core of their faith and echoes the eternal promise of God’s presence amid life’s trials and tribulations.

Chris Enstad

Chris Enstad lives in Madison, Wisconsin where he cheers for the Minnesota Vikings and serves as Lead Pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (ELCA). He is married and has two daughters.

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