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, heartwrenching, 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. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves, now protective, now hedonistic, move into control, Ada's life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction. Narrated from the perspective of the various 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.
It follows a girl Ada who is born in Nigeria with what is called ogbanje — gods from another world trapped in her mind. It sounds like magical realism, but it’s more of a spiritual way of explaining schizophrenia. Over a tumultuous childhood she moved to the US for college where the gods/voices multiply and become stronger. Many of the chapters are told in the voices of the gods. They all live in a marble room in her head.
My biggest issue with the book was the beginning and middle were very clearly set in reality. We learned about Ada’s parents, their divorce, her college experience meeting her roommate and then all those details fall away. She is having affairs all over the world, saving thousands of dollars for a plastic surgery, checking herself into a hospital for help and checking herself out, but there’s no mention of a job that pays for all these things or even where/how she lives. I understand that these feel irrelevant as she’s battling her gods, but I wasn’t able to understand her struggles without the context of her day-to-day life that was so detailed in the beginning.
The traumas that are inflicted upon the main character, Ada, are graphically narrated mainly by the spirits/dissociative parts, and also by Ada themself. This is represented as a protective and adaptive, if painful and wounding, process rather than as mental illness. Indeed, Ada's brushes with the psychiatric establishment are shown as dangerous and threatening to their selfhood, and their avoidance of 'treatment' as fortuitous escapes. Being semi-autobiographical, I give the author credit for knowing what they speak of. Powerfully, heartbreakingly insightful.
This book could be triggering for those who have experienced violence and sexual trauma.
That said, it is also deeply disturbing. As background, the author describes this book in interviews as very close to memoir, which didn't surprise me given some of the ways the story is told (for example, a number of 'characters' that don't really play into the narrative show up periodically, in a way that only makes sense if they are real people from the author's life).
So, disturbing - first, because I couldn't follow the author/narrator's reinterpretation of their madness as spiritual and metaphysical. Second, because the book is so focused on the narrator's complicated, multiple self, that it skates over the other humans in their life, and the harm they did, over and over. A person may be a spirit being stuck in a human body, or a person may have multiple personality disorder, but that doesn't excuse using people like toys, much less breaking those toys like a spoiled child. The narrator acknowledges that harm, but never really reckons with it, because they are consumed with their internal conflicts. Other people don't seem real to them. And that, more than the strangeness of their spiritual condition/madness, is what is really grotesque about this novel.
This book is the kind of dazzling that defies easy descriptions, but of course I have to try. When Ada is born, a number of ogbanje are trapped within her body. Not used to having mortal lives or possessing physical form, they mostly ride along -- whispering to her in her mind now and then, keeping her company. But when something terrible happens to Ada in college, the spirits take on more active roles, sometimes going so far as to take over, "possessing" her. At first it is all in the name of protecting Ada -- but the ogbanje have desires of their own, and balancing them all becomes increasingly difficult.
What's fascinating about this book is that as easily as it could be read as mythology/fantasy, it could all be read as a direct metaphor for mental illness and responses to trauma. I sometimes wondered if Emezi would "give the game away" and commit to one interpretation or the other, but the book lives in that tension throughout.
Fierce and compelling. I am sure this book will continue to find new readers.
I learned about Freshwater after someone (I don't remember who) quoted a short passage on twitter. Just a single sentence or two — too short to know what the story was about, but beautiful enough to make me long to read the book. It was not yet published at the time, so I watched and waited and clicked the preorder link as soon as it appeared, then I waited some more for this beautiful book to be printed and shipped to me.
It was every bit worth the wait, because this debut novel is gorgeous.
“There was a time before we had a body, when it was still building itself cell by cell inside the thin woman, meticulously producing organs, making systems.”
Born in Nigeria, Ada begins life with a fractured self, burdened with the weight of god creatures that have been bound into her flesh. Living "with one foot on the other side" she is a troubled and volatile child who grows into a troubled and volatile adult, with a tendency toward outbursts and self harm. As she grows and moves to America, where she experiences a traumatic event, new selves crystalize within her, each providing their own protections and hungers.
Much of the story is told from the point of view of these god creatures (or spirit beings), which have their own needs and desires beyond that of Ada herself. Their story and her story blends together, as they have been blended together in spirit and flesh. It's a fantastic rendering of having a fractured self, the confusing mix of desires and emotions that make up a person, the ways we work to protect and harm ourselves.
“I had arrived, flesh from flesh, true blood from true blood. I was the wildness under the skin, the skin into a weapon, the weapon over the flesh.”
The writing style in this book is lush and vibrant, evoking the energy and power of spirit realms represented in the voices of the gods the speak this story. It's gorgeous on every page, bringing into existence a story that is unsettling, surprising, and powerful. This is a novel I will return to again and again.
In her debut novel, Akwaeke Emezi crafts a journey that is devastating and empowering. There is much in this story that can break a heart or turn a reader in disgust. Those avoiding difficult subjects in their reads should skip this one. Ultimately, however, Freshwater is a very spiritual tale, a battle for one soul. Despite the many dark moments, it becomes a display of strength and fulfillment. Through lyrical prose and the unrelenting voices, Freshwater explores what it is to be between two worlds—living and dead, Africa and America, Allah and Yeshua, peace and rage.
Akwaeke Emezi‘s novel „Freshwater“ was all but easy to read for me. First of all, I had some difficulty understanding who is telling the story, it took me some time to figure out that the voices in Ada‘s head are the narrators. So, we are mostly inside her mind, but sometimes we get what happens outside, too.
You cannot really say that Ada is mad even though she hears voices and follows their command. It was especially when she hurt herself to calm down the first two voices, Smoke and Shadow, that was hard to endure. The third who made her act promiscuously wasn‘t much better. They are evil, after all, misusing an innocent human to fulfil their wishes and greed. I am not sure if it works like this with people hearing voices, even if it is somewhat different, this seems to be horrible. On the other hand, Ada obviously experienced some very bad incidents and the voices were somehow able to split those memories from her normal memory thus making her forget these experiences. Maybe this is the cause why the voices could develop after all.
It is always hard to like a novel if you detest the protagonist or narrator. Thus, „Freshwater“ is not a novel I could fall for easily. Still, I consider the topic highly interesting and, ultimately, the author found a convincing way of making the voices heard for us.
The protagonist, Ada, has multiple personalities, personalities which are self-aware as spirits from within a specific tradition. Spirits who remember a time before they were confined within the meat body of the human girl Ada.
I first heard of the book through an online review, and that reviewer was unable to take this premise seriously. S/he had to approach the book solely as a depiction of psychological fragmentation. I, on the other hand, have known a person like Ada: someone whose multiple personalities had distinct spiritual identities, and who spoke of their shared mental space as a "cave" -- strikingly similar to the "marble room" that Ada and her spirits refer to. The fighting over the body, the need to reform the body to accommodate the identities of the spirits. . . those too are familiar to me. Each beautifully-written, emotionally challenging chapter brought with it for me a sense of shock as I encountered again and again experiences which I had heard of face-to-face.
Read it as a fantasy, as a psychological novel, or as a near documentary. . . it will still be a book well worth reading.
It's difficult to summarize Freshwater, which is semi-autobiographical, because it can be read two ways: through the lens of traditional Igbo spirituality (the author's primary focus) or via a Western psychiatric view, which readers will bring to it. The personalities within Ada view themselves as ogbanje--traditional spirits, that have come with her from birth. They are shaped by her trauma, and accompany her through self destruction.
At the beginning, the writing felt somewhat overworked, trying too hard to bring a particular tone and rhythm reflective of Nigerian/Igbo English, but as other voices enter the story, with their own personalities and language, it achieved a better balance. The story focuses much more on internal narrative than on dialogue, filtering events through Ada's personalities' points of view.
I picked up this book after reading PET, Emezi's young adult fantasy, which I liked very much.
When you come to understand Emezi's own experience, it is amazing that she has recovered and written so brilliantly. That she managed to live in the world, graduate from college, respond to her own understanding that she was a transgendered person who had been abused.
Her multiple personalities are called ogbanje, or spirits. One of them, Asughara, leads her to act out sexually in ways that Ada, herself, in her devout Catholicism, cannot.
Emezi will publish an actual memoir, Dear Senthuran, in June. It would be interesting to compare it to this book.
Ada is always uncomfortable, and does not remember what she does when controlled by these spirits. She cuts herself, she has relationships and friends (one of whom seems to understand), she has surgery to modify her female body. She develops an eating disorder, and she tries to find her way back to Yshwa.
Is Ada mentally ill? Is she an ogbanje? Is she just struggling to come to terms with her queer identity, and to fit in? She does not know, and the tension between Ada and the spirits, and her mother, boyfriends, friends--that is what makes this book so original and fascinating.
I listened to this book on Hoopla, and the author is the performer. Her voice is mesmerizing, but I was confused a few times because the narrator changed but I did not realize it.