Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Published by Faber & Faber, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Having deliberately gone into this with little idea of what to expect, I was both impressed and delighted by how rich and complex it proved to be. Beautifully written, and highly thought-provoking, it is far more spiritual than I had anticipated, but ultimately explores identity at the murky intersection of culture, history, psychology, gender, sexuality, religion, mental health, and circumstance.
The plot follows Ada, a young Nigerian woman who must attempt to understand and make peace with the various parts of her fragmented psyche. Presented as ogbanje, spirits from Igbo folklore thought to plague someone with misfortune, these disparate voices take turns to narrate Ada’s story as they compete for control of their host, and look for a way to break free.
There are so many layers at play here. When taken literally, the folkloric nature of the story is darkly fascinating and fantastical, but there are undoubtedly thematic parallels with the trans/non-binary experience, and multiple personality disorder. The book examines how physically and mentally destructive it can be to live inside a body that feels in some way disjointed from your inner self (or indeed, selves). The ties to psychology and medicine become particularly prevalent here. With characters eager to label or diagnose Ada, we see both the stigma of mental health, and the arrogance of the Western world, which is quick to dismiss ideas from cultures it knows little about; even when it comes to something as diverse and unknowable as the human mind.
On that note, the book can also be interpreted as a look at the mind’s ability to fragment and compartmentalise to protect us from trauma; different ogbanje rising to the fore to shield or guide Ada when necessary. It also ruminates on the complexity of religion; how it can both offer salvation and encourage self-loathing.
The prose itself is excellent. There’s a sensual, flowing quality to the whole thing that lends it an almost ethereal edge. This works well given how much the narrative is informed by folklore, which is itself steeped in the art of storytelling.
This is the kind of novel that is driven more by its introspective ideas and stimulating themes than it is by plot, and as such, it’s one that offers more questions than it does answers. But the utterly unique narration and the incisive look at the relationship between mind and body make for a truly memorable reading experience.
If you’d like to read Freshwater, you can find a copy by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!