The history of genetics begins, not with Gregor Mendel's pea experiments, but with people long ago noticing family resemblances and vulnerabilities so distinctive that shared environment alone can't explain them.
In the new literary fiction masterpiece The Covenant of Water, author-physician Abraham Verghese traces an unusual trait through three generations of a Christian family in India, against the historical backdrop of the coalescence of three states into Kerala, on the Malabar Coast, spanning 1900 to 1977. "The family … suffers a peculiar affliction: in every generation, at least one person dies by drowning – and in Kerala, water is everywhere," reads the jacket cover.
Through time, the drownings have been ascribed to bad luck and a familial recklessness, rather than to anything as cut in stone as an inherited condition. Frequent drownings seem more coincidence, harder to explain biologically than bleeding from missing a clotting factor or impaired breathing from cystic fibrosis. But the 700+ page tale is indeed about a rare manifestation of a rare condition.
The narrative captures the dread of an autosomal dominantly inherited disease, striking every generation, males and females. Dr. Verghese names all of the characters except the patriarch, who passed down the mutation behind the illness that isn't revealed until well into the saga. Perhaps keeping him nameless is a metaphor for the mysterious origin of what the family calls "the Condition."
To continue reading, go to DNA Science, where this post first appeared.