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Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater (2018)

by Akwaeke Emezi

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1811395,255 (3.83)11



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This would have been a solid four star novel if it weren't for the way it ended so abruptly. Otherwise, this was a really interesting look at mental health and how it can control people so fully. ( )
  Katie_Roscher | Jan 18, 2019 |
Strange yet beautiful, this book is about a woman warring against forces inside herself that she cannot accept. She sees them as ogbanje, evil spirits that live inside her, split her personality and cause her to do things that are unacceptable to her family, her religion, and her own sense of who she is as a person. This was a really engaging book. ( )
  redwritinghood38 | Nov 6, 2018 |
Freshwater is captivating, dynamic, and wise. At once, Akwaeke Emezi is able to frighten and confound their reader with a writing style that is intense and poetic. The raw honesty with which Emezi frames their debut book grabbed me by the throat and compelled me to continue reading, catching my breath as I turned each page.

Freshwater is the semi-autobiographical story of Ada, a Nigerian girl who was always a bit different from other children. She was a challenging child for her parents, who worried about her precocious and fractured existence. Throughout her life and the book, Ada speaks through her various selves, which Emezi frames within the Igbo (Nigeria) tradition of ogbanje...

Emezi is masterfully able to evoke the dark emotions and confusion Ada experiences and bring to light her complicated codependence upon her various selves or ogbanje. At times, Emezi conjured feelings of sympathy and understanding in me for them. By the time Ada gets to the US to attend college, a being called Asụghara is the most prevalent of Ada’s selves and is the most reckless and fearless of them all. Asụghara is content to live out their sexual compulsions through Ada’s body. As she grows, Ada surrenders to her various identities but it’s important to remember that surrender is not always weakness or loss. I believe Ada is finally able to make peace with her multiple selves and work with them in order to live a balanced and authentic life. Perhaps pathological in Western views, the truth is that most of us could point to multiple identities through which we scroll and choose the one which will serve us best at different times in our lives. Some of us though, like Ada/Emezi, may be more misunderstood and challenged than others to the point where it feels as though the dark side possesses a power over us that will not let go.

At times disquieting to read, Freshwater takes on challenging topics such as identity, mental illness, self-harm, sexual assault, suicide, and more. Emezi has a style of writing that is deliberate and exacting; I felt as though each word was painstakingly chosen so as to illustrate Ada’s splintered and exigent existence.

At times the book reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Toni Morrison’s brilliant Beloved in its fearful reverence of ancestral relationships, tradition, and spirituality. Emezi uses the Igbo tradition of ogbanje as a framework for a cogent exploration into identity formation and evolution, and for how we wear masks throughout life to deal with and make sense of pain and for how we exhibit bravery in the face of fear.

In the end, I found Freshwater to be bold, challenging, and unique. It touched places of fear and pain within me but it also made me recall delicious moments of audacity and triumph. I gagged on the sticky, jagged chunks of this book and I long to read it again and swallow it whole because I know there is so much more there to be digested.

I can’t wait to devour more of what Akwake Emezi is serving up. ( )
  karlajstrand | Aug 15, 2018 |
I was quite surprised when I came across Freshwater at the library. I had read about it at the Johannesburg Review of Books and had expected it to be difficult to access as so many books from Africa are. But it turns out that Emezi is an expat Nigerian and that Freshwater, her debut novel, was published in the US not Nigeria, and it’s been widely reviewed there (see here, and scroll to Books). So that accounts for its availability in my local library.

Freshwater is, as the JRB review says, inventive, innovative and bold. It tells the story of Ada’s fractured selves, and these are, disconcertingly, based on the author’s own realities. This may mean that the work is partly autobiographical, and that Ada’s traumatic experiences of Otherness perhaps mirror the author’s own life. Thinking that this might be so makes reading the book an unsettling experience…

Like Ben Okri’s The Famished World, Freshwater features ogbanje – spirits from Igbo spiritual beliefs, in this case multiple amoral spirits inadvertently stranded in Ada’s body when the gates were left open. Repeated episodes of sexual abuse bring these spirits to the fore, most notably Asughara who intervenes in Ada’s subsequent sexual ventures at college in America, ostensibly to prevent her being hurt again. One of the most disconcerting aspects of this novel is the unadulterated contempt for the men she encounters. It is Asughara’s nature to be cruel and contemptuous, but there are no good men in this novel, not even Ada’s father who disappears into obscurity leaving his wife to take care of the family, (which she mostly does by abandoning the children to work overseas).

However the novel is not about characterisation, and readers looking to ‘connect’ with a character will probably be disappointed. There is very little about Ada’s family, and the reader learns nothing about how she got to college in the US, what course she’s doing or what career she might anticipate. There’s a lot about her appearance, her clothes and her hair, and also about the physical appearance and the limitations of the men she meets. The clarity of these external descriptions serves to emphasise the confusion of Ada’s internal identity and to stress that the beautiful self that is seen by others is not the self that she is trying to negotiate without going mad.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/06/20/freshwater-by-akwaeke-emezi-bookreview/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Jun 19, 2018 |
Freshwater is a unique debut novel from Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi. It’s gives us magical realism without colonialism, using Nigerian and Igbo perspectives. Primary among these is the idea of obanje, which is an Igbo spirit that floats through mother’s wombs before they give birth. Obanje also become present within those children, as Emezi says “in the liminal spaces.”

Liminal is a new word for me, meaning occupying both sides or on the threshold. In this case the side are spirit and human. Emezi creates her voices, or obanje, around the human girl called Ada. At first, Freshwater is told by a pair of spirits using the plural voice. Then she uses third person to tell more of Ada’s story. How she was prayed into existence by her physician father, Saul. About her siblings, and her mother Saachi.

But the heart of the book is the relationship between Ada and the spirits who inhabit her. There’s also a spirit called Asụghara, who comes into being during a traumatic experience in Ada’s college years. Asụghara Is a rebel, and draws Ada from the virginal girl to the other side of hedonism. So again, Emezi has her main characters straddling a threshold.

There are quite a few interviews with Emezi available online, and I found them helpful as I distilled the novel. Her perspective is nonbinary in terms of both gender and spirit vs. human. She’s also taken the concept of magical realism and infused it with Nigerian and Igbo traditions, moving it to a completely different plane in the process.

My conclusions:
I found Freshwater to be a challenging read. The nature of the story is confusion. Ada and her spirits are caught up in it, and Emezi lets the reader feel their frustration. I started by listening to this on audio, and quickly switched to print so that I could take advantage of the important visual cues at the beginning of chapters.

I love the “own voices” quality of Freshwater. Not only is Akwaeke Emezi Nigerian, she is openly gender nonconforming, and lives in those liminal spaces. According to her interviews, she created Ada and the obanje as a fictionalized representation of her own experiences.

You may or may not feel Freshwater represents multiple personality disorder from the patient’s point of view. Either way, reading this book took me to another place, far from my comfort zone of white, hertero, cisgender, suburban wife and mother.

In terms of writing style and pacing, Freshwater is lyrical but also revels in its sharp edges. It moves forward evenly enough, but the varying characters create fits and starts.

Nevertheless, this is an evocative novel from a writer sure to become even more celebrated.

Many thanks to NetGalley, the author, and Grove Atlantic for the digital ARC in exchange for this honest review. ( )
  TheBibliophage | May 19, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
This unconventional novel tells the story of Ada, a baby born of mixed parentage who arrives in the world accompanied by a chaos of spirits, awakened at her birth when the gates between the spirit world and the world of the flesh are left open. ‘The first madness was that we were born,’ they say, ‘that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.’ By this, the spirits mean that rather than becoming a unitary whole with their host, they retain their own interests and preoccupations, as well as the wrenching awareness that they are dislocated from the realm of the gods: ‘We were sent through carelessly, with a net of knowledge snarled around our ankles, not enough to tell us anything, just enough to trip us up.’
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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. 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.… (more)

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