Review: Freshwater

For a very brief time, I was seeing a lot of love for Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, Freshwater, especially in my Instagram feed. The reviews and comments I saw for it grabbed my attention– split personalities, west African native, ogbanje (evil spirit) narrative, a book in a category all to itself. But then it basically disappeared, despite its great reviews. So I picked it up to see for myself what it was all about.

freshwaterAbout the book: Ada was born in Africa with the gates to the gods left open. From the first moment of her birth she was made to share her physical being with a host of “others.” These gods depend on Ada and the well-being of her body, but their motives are mixed– they want to survive, but they also have vowed to return to their brothersisters in the spirit realm. Their low regard for humans causes traumatic events in Ada’s young life, but they’re also the ones who pick up the pieces when Ada can’t stand what is happening to her and retreats deep into the recesses of her mind. A rape during her college years further fractures Ada’s mind and allows the other beings inside her to take control of her body. Ada gradually loses her sense of self, her ability to make decisions, and even her will to live as the battle surges within her.

“We would both materialize in her mind, the marble room, cool veined white walls and floors, and she would look away. It was understandable: I had arrived and I was so deep inside her, locked into her flesh, moving her muscles. Suddenly she had to share with something she couldn’t control. I understood, but at the same time, it wasn’t my problem.”

Freshwater is a book unlike any book I’ve read before. It delves into matters of madness and the mind like The Bell Jar, Rebecca, or The Haunting of Hill House, but it does so from multiple viewpoints– this story is narrated from the points of view of the various entities inside Ada. Her deterioration is inevitable from the beginning of the novel, but it’s still surprising and engrossing to watch it happen. I’ve never seen or read an example of multiple “people” inhabiting a body in which each of the “characters” is presented as real as their host human, and the realness of the others in Ada is what gives Freshwater its power, by showing how totally out of her control her mental state is. How the others resist Ada’s attempts to seek professional help, and how even Ada is reluctant to seek help because as destructive as her others can be they are also her constant companions, a defining part of who she is.

“The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside– maybe that’s the exact definition of madness, come to think of it.”

Freshwater reads a bit like magical realism. I think the book can be interpreted very differently (perhaps wrongly) if it is read as magical realism. It does make wide use of colorful metaphors and statements that seem like metaphors but are actually Ada’s unusual reality. But I think much of the exploration of the ogbanje personalities would be lost if one read Freshwater as magical realism rather than a beautifully written piece of literary fiction. Here’s an example of Emezi’s writing that straddles the line between real and magical:

“After all, was I not the the hunger in Ada? I was made out of desire, I tasted of it, I filled her up with it and choked her, lying over her like a killing cloud, soft and unstoppable, all the weight of a wet sky.”

It’s a matter of perspective. And I think that’s what I loved most about Freshwater. Though I do not know what it is like to live with multiple people/gods inside of my body, there is something familiar in Ada’s descriptions. Though the extremity of her situation may be foreign to many readers, this is a book that makes the different “sides” of a person’s personality feel seen. Aren’t there times when you look back at something you’ve done or experienced and you feel like you were a different person then? For most of us, it’s growth and change of a unified perspective, but there are certainly statements in Freshwater that I was surprised to relate to, and I think other readers will be, as well. There are times when the mind feels torn between decisions, between opinions, etc. and those familiar moments of duality (or even multiplicity) are what makes Freshwater accessible and compelling despite how unique and specific this story is. It’s a masterpiece.

I also want to mention how well the cultural aspects of the novel are woven into this tale. Freshwater begins in west Africa, where the reader is introduced to the concept of ogbanje, or an evil spirit born into a child that brings misfortune to its family. Though split personalities can occur in any culture, Ada’s ties to Africa and her own specific beliefs shape her particular case throughout the novel. I love books that can teach about cultures without turning the lesson into a lecture or sacrificing a unique and compelling plot in the meantime. Freshwater is a perfect blend.

“But she was– she has always been– a terrifyingly beautiful thing.”

Trigger warning: rape, suicide attempts

For more information on ogbanje and Emezi’s real-life experiences (similar to Ada’s in some ways), please check out this article written by Emezi. It completes the reading experience.

My reaction : 5 out of 5 stars. I had no idea what to expect from this book, but I know now that I’ve grown and learned from reading it, and Emezi’s gorgeous prose made that journey enjoyable despite its heavy subject matter. This is exactly the sort of novel I wanted to be reading in 2018– new and different, pushing the boundaries of familiar and accepted norms. I can’t wait to see what Emezi will publish next.

Have you read any books that have surprised you in a good way lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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16 thoughts on “Review: Freshwater”

  1. Ah yay, I’m so glad you loved this! I was also recently thinking about how there was such a huge buzz in anticipation of this novel and how all the excitement has kind of fizzled out. I was also like ‘why the heck wasn’t this longlisted for the Women’s Prize??’ before remembering that Emezi doesn’t identify as a woman. But I hope this book gets nominated for some of the other big literary prizes later this year, it would be such a shame to see it kind of fade away since it’s such a huge achievement. Also, have you read this article? It’s really fascinating: https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/writer-and-artist-akwaeke-emezi-gender-transition-and-ogbanje.html

    As for books that surprised me recently, I was sort of on the fence about reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman but I’m 60% in and absolutely loving it!

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    1. I agree, this definitely seems like a prize-worthy book. I hope it does win something, and receive more of the attention it deserves.

      Also, thanks for sharing the article! I had not read it yet, and you’re right: it was definitely worth the read. I had seen a couple of reviews mention that Ada’s experiences reflected some of Emezi’s, but reading about it directly is always better. I think it gave me a better understanding of what an ogbanje is than the novel did, which I appreciated because that was one of the most intriguing concepts in the book for me and adds such an interesting layer to the trans experience. (Not that there’s a uniform trans experience, but the specific angles different people approach it from particularly intrigue me.)

      I’ll have to look into The Idiot! I hadn’t heard much about it yet, but seeing it mentioned as a good-surprise book is encouraging.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I totally agree – reading that after the novel really helped me wrap my head around a lot of the concepts Emezi was discussing in Freshwater. One of the things this novel and article really made me realize is the extent to which I blindly trust western health practices, psychology included. Like I was so quick to read this and think ‘this is a book about multiple personality disorder’ when it’s clearly a book about ogbanje, and how Emezi is comfortable with the way she conceptualizes her selves. And while I was trying to write my review I really had to pay attention to my phrasing to make sure I wasn’t imposing my own western-influenced vocabulary on Emezi’s own experiences… it’s definitely one of the more thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, and one where I felt like I was actually being immersed in a different culture without viewing that culture through an American lens. Fingers crossed for all the awards!

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      2. I had a similar reaction at first, assuming multiple personality disorder. Even when I realized that wasn’t it in this case, I didn’t know how to talk about what I meant. After reading the article I had to look back at my review and reword some of my “split personality” phrases because I realized it wasn’t what I was trying to say. Though there are multiple perspectives inside Ada, they aren’t split from the whole of herself, and that’s a surprisingly hard distinction to make, as you mention, with the western education I’ve also had. I always want my reviews to be as objective and considerate as I can possibly make them (as reviewers do). I suppose if there’s one thing I think could have improved Freshwater, it would be a bit more information on the ogbanje. Since that’s such a crucial part of this story, I wish I had been better able to understand it within the work itself.

        I absolutely agree about the great view of culture without an American lens; I loved that Freshwater was able to show me a belief I had never considered without invalidating any beliefs of mine, and doing it all in such an unconfusing way. I wish all cultures could be represented so well, and recognition for this one would definitely be a right step in that direction!

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      3. Honestly I was lucky that a friend had sent me that article before I wrote my review, because it completely warped my perspective (in a good way). I’m sure I would have written paragraphs about the book being an elaborate allegory for multiple personality disorder. But I guess we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves – personally I knew NOTHING about ogbanje before this book and it’s a lot to take in all at once. Also, this is sort of getting into the whole death of the author idea – since I now know that Emezi doesn’t identify as having a split personality and would prefer that Ada not be read that way I’ll obviously respect that, but for a lot of western readers that is a very logical conclusion that isn’t necessarily disputed within the book itself? So anyway, that’s such a valid critique… since this is being published in the US and UK it’s fair to assume the audience isn’t going to have a very solid grasp on this concept going in.

        And yes, agreed completely, it’s so rare to read a book which allows you to experience the world in a completely different way.

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      4. I think the temptation to call Freshwater an allegory for multiple personality disorder is part of the reason I was seeing reviews that categorized this book as magical realism. Emezi’s writing did give it a magical sort of vibe, in my opinion, but I do think that reading it as magical realism takes away from the belief in ogbanje as a real occurring phenomenon.
        But even though the book is not about multiple personality disorder, I think it does have a lot of similarities to that sort of narrative. It IS a valid critique that that isn’t discredited in the text, but I’m not sure it’s a bad thing if it opens a new avenue for discussion on multiple personalities as well? I don’t know, I’m of two minds on that. Who can say whether it’s better for a book to always be perceived with the messages it was intended, or to start worthwhile conversation about any message? I do hope more people will read this book, partially because I’m curious about what sort of commentary will come out of a wider readership.

        And, of course, because it’s awesome.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I completely agree!!! You bring up a good point – if certain people read it as an allegory for multiple personality disorder, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as still frames the subject in a way that most western readers will have never thought about before. And it still raises questions about the perceived objectivity of psychology – what makes multiple personality disorder the ‘right’ diagnosis when someone conceptualizes their own experience by a totally different cultural framework?

        This kind of makes my head hurt but I also think it’s so brilliant that I don’t mind. I’m glad you’ve read it now – I talked to a couple of people about it right after I finished but hadn’t seen it on any blogs I follow for months afterward! And I love discussing it even though it makes me feel a bit dumb and very confused.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Yes! Freshwater is just constructed so well that it’s hard not to call it a success any way you approach it. Which also makes it a challenge to say definitively what the “right” approach should be. I so hope that more people will pick this one up and start talking about all the real-world implications this could have on perceptions of culture and the individual mind. There is such a wealth of potential here.

        And I know exactly what you mean- this has definitely seemed like one of those books that’s only half-complete with the actual reading experience. After talking and thinking about it more I feel like I’m finally wrapping my head around it, like the conversation it generates is as necessary to the story as the text itself. I don’t know anyone in my real life who has read or is imminently planning to pick up this book, so being able to talk about it here has really helped untangle my thoughts and widen my appreciation for it. It’s relieving not to be stuck in my own head with it. A college-level class could dissect this book for weeks, and I was not prepared for that level of greatness going in. Maybe a book doesn’t take a village, but a second blogger certainly helps!

        Liked by 1 person

      7. I would love to take a course on this book! I felt similarly about The Vegetarian, I loved it a lot but I also felt like I needed to listen to someone give a lecture on it in order to fully unpack everything. (There’s the cultural element with that one too, where it made me feel like an ignorant American.) I love when books manage to be this thematically rich, where they’re practically begging for discussion.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. The Vegetarian is still waiting in my Eventual TBR, but I’m more enthused to pick it up with that context. Also a little more nervous, hoping I’ll be able to pick up on enough to do it justice, but at least there’s more commentary on it out in the world at this point to help guide me through. The single perk of being late to a book, perhaps, is being able to jump right into the discussion rather than waiting for it to arrive.

        Like

      9. (super late reply sorry my life is chaos) I will be VERY curious to see what you think about The Vegetarian, it’s very very odd, but since you loved Freshwater I think there’s a chance you’ll like it! Not that they’re similar in the way they’re told, but they’re both very cerebral and thought-provoking and provide glimpses into a specific culture while also ruminating on more universal themes. And both made me feel like an idiot to a degree, which is clearly something I must enjoy!

        Liked by 1 person

      10. No problem! I know how that goes.

        Honestly The Vegetarian sounds more appealing to me the more I learn about what it’s doing rather than just hearing about its plot. I don’t have much of a library list for next month yet, so I’m leaning more towards picking this one up! Thanks for intriguing me. 🙂

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