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.
About 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?
The Literary Elephant