Book review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

A spirited tale: This is also, because of the subject matter, a sombre and disturbing read.

Writing in an arresting style, the author juxtaposes African folklore and mythology with contemporary characters and settings to explore “the metaphysics of identity and being, plunging the reader into the mysteries of self.” On another level, this is the story of a troubled girl who grows up with split personality and other psychiatric disorders.

The story is initially told by three spirits who are born inside, and grow along with Ada, a little girl growing up in Nigeria. Later, other ‘brothersister’ spirits come to offer their perspectives as they come and occupy the empty marble room that is Ada’s mind.

Ada is a disturbed child from infancy, with frequent unexplained fits of anger and sorrow. What we term mental illness on the realistic and logical plane is explained by the spirits in their own way. “We came from somewhere — everything does. When the transition is made from spirit to flesh, the gates are meant to be closed. It’s a kindness… Perhaps the gods forgot… By the time she (our body) struggled out into the world, slick and louder than a village of storms, the gates were left open. We should have been anchored in her by then, asleep inside her membranes and synched with her mind. That would have been the safest way. But since the gates were open, not closed against remembrance, we became confused. We were at once old and newborn. We were her and yet not. We were not conscious but we were alive – in fact, the main problem was that we were a distinct we instead of being fully and just her.”

Such passages of beautiful prose make this book stand out among many. The girl Ada grows up with several conflicting identities and conversations inside her head. Her name was derived from the pre-Christian python god Ala, “who is the earth herself, the judge and mother, the giver of law… Ala holds the underworld replete in her womb, the dead flexing and flattening her belly, a crescent moon above her.” The spirits growing inside the child Ada, with memories of their other worldly existence, are ogbanje, the children of Ala.

The spirits awaken and arise during a midnight masquerade ceremony, which Ada attends with her school friend Lisa. “That moment, when our eyes opened in the dust of the village square and we were awake in both her realm and ours for the first time, it felt like pure brightness. We were all one, together, balanced for a brief velvet moment in a village night.”

As Ada grows, she witnesses and blames herself for her younger sister Anuli’s nasty road accident. She has an apathetic father least interested in planning his children’s future with his wife.

“ ‘Why are you not interested in making college plans for them?’ Saachi asked, hurt and frustration seeping out of the cracks in her voice. She wanted to include Saul; she was tired and ripped from her family, she wanted him to care, to help. But Saul was an unforgiving man…he didn’t even have to go anywhere in order to leave her.”

Her doctor-father Saul and nurse mother separate, and her mother sends Ada to college in the US. Here, other spirits also flit in and out of Ada’s mind. She gets into painful and abusive relationships, notably with an Eritrean-Dutch boy named Soren. Ada ends up hurting herself physically, accepting hurtful sex from boys she cannot love, and who do not love her.

As Ada progresses through college, she names some of these spirits, notably Asughara, who says he “made Ada do things she didn’t want to, I wasn’t doing it to be cruel. The whole world is greater than the individual.” Ada reads up on personality disorders, seeking reasons, answers and explanations for her strange behaviour. Apart from hurting herself, she, or the spirits inside her, also end up hurting the people Ada loves.

Ada has arguments with the spirits inside her head.

“You’re hurting people I love, don’t you understand?” (Ada) said. “I can’t just fold my hands and watch you do it.”

“You’re doing this for them?” (Asughara, a spirit inside Ada’s head) put out the cigarette. Maybe she didn’t understand. “They deserved it Ada. All of them deserved it for what we went through.”

This beautifully crafted novel tells the story of Ada’s journey through loss, sorrow and heartbreak to reconciliation, as she strives to bridge gaps between her conflicting selves.

This is also, because of the subject matter, a sombre and disturbing read.

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Book review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

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