Date Read: December 10th 2017
Published: February 2018
Publisher: Grove Press
An extraordinary debut novel, Freshwater explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side.” Unsettling, heart-wrenching, dark, and powerful, Freshwater is a sharp evocation of a rare way of experiencing the world, one that illuminates how we all construct our identities.
Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these alters—now protective, now hedonistic—move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.
Narrated by the selves within Ada, and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater explores the metaphysics of identity and mental health, plunging the reader into the mystery of being and self. Freshwater dazzles with ferocious energy and serpentine grace, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.
Review –★★★★ (4 stars)
Freshwater by Igbo and Tamil writer – Akwaeke Emezi, has to be the most anticipated debut of 2018. I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) early December and devoured the book the weekend I received it. Even though Freshwater is highly anticipated worldwide, I’m curious and quite nervous to see how Nigerians and other African readers will take this novel.
If I had known this book was as evil, dark and sinful as it was, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to read it. But now that I’ve marinated the story in my mind for a while, I can confidently declare that Freshwater is SO MUCH MORE than it’s insane level of lust and blasphemy. Freshwater is a dark, layered tale based in and out of the spiritual realm, which focuses on how past traumas deeply affect one’s well-being and mental health.
Ada (she/they) – the main character, has many selves. The selves within Ada are different gods or spirits who are birthed during different phases and traumas of her/their life. These gods are almost like her/their alter egos and they sustain her/their human body through protective and destructive means. Multiple Personality Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, suicide, panic attacks, rape (this was VERY difficult to read), lust, violence, sex (A LOT OF IT; it was unbelievable), self-injury, love, religion, strained family relations, sisterhood, immigration, homosexuality and gender fluidity are all explored in this complex debut.
In the beginning, reading Freshwater was frustrating. The story didn’t seem to make sense to me because I didn’t know who was talking! There are many voices in this book and I wasn’t sure whether Ada, Asughara, Saint Vincent, brothersisters or Ala was speaking (these are all the names of the gods we encounter in the story). There’s a certain rhythm to this debut which will only make sense if the reader has an open mind and patience. Some parts of this book still don’t make sense to me and I feel some characters/gods didn’t need to be introduced at all. But all in all, my weekend was well spent indulging in this extraordinary tale, even though it felt sinful at times. I was very fond of Emezi’s writing style which is accessible, calculated and not overly embellished.
For me, the most fascinating thing about Freshwater is the juxtaposition between God of Christianity versus the gods of the dark world. Ada’s relationship with the two associations speak volumes on our (Africans/Black folks) relationship with religion and how it guides and/or controls our lives, whether it feels real or not… it’s hard to explain! I absolutely loved that Emezi explores the difficulties of loving and accepting oneself in this novel, through Ada’s character. As humans, we all have other selves within us – in the form of our blended temperaments, alter egos and moods; these are all explored in a scary, extreme way.
Freshwater is definitely not for everyone (for example: hardcore Christians who can’t appreciate the art of the imagination that God blessed writers with), especially with how difficult it was to read. The book is laden with triggering incidents and the storyline has a non-linear trajectory, which may be confusing to some readers. It takes work to understand this type of novel, whose genre isn’t even clearcut- I’d say Freshwater is a mix of sci-fi, mythicism, thriller and memoir, as parts of Emezi’s real life are part of the story. I don’t think there’s a book out there like this. Akwaeke Emezi is a beast – no pun intended.
Special thanks to Grove Press for the ARC.
[Side note: My rough thoughts on this book were initially posted on my Goodreads, where Akwaeke Emezi spotted it and gave me a shout out on Twitter + Instagram + in their newsletter. It was a pleasant surprise! 🙂 ]
★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!
Purchase Freshwater on Amazon