Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

This novel is like nothing else I’ve ever read, it describes an inner world, an occupied mind, from that inside. It puts the reader in a position of imagining, perhaps even to a certain degree understanding, what it might be like to have your subconscious and conscious mind occupied by other entities, entities with a voice, with personality, that from time to time take over the body, affect behaviour, talk to you and through you.

Reality is depicted from their perspective, giving full voice to the multiple entities, birthed (through traumas) at different times during the life of Ada (her name though her father told her just meant ‘precious’, in its truest form, meant, the egg of a python), who was born a girl (though doesn’t stay one) in Nigeria and educated in America, where much of the narrative takes place.

We become aware of their presence from the opening pages, before they are awakened within Ada, in a chapter that is utterly compelling as we come to realise who the ‘we‘ is that is narrating much of the story. And ‘we‘ is not the only non-human narrator.

These personalities inhabit a place (referred to in the text as the marble room) within the body/mind, they lie dormant until they are awakened, they keep each other company in that space, they co-habit this one body and constantly justify their existence and inclinations and sometimes act out on them, though they too seem capable of evolving, just as their human needs to and does. And just in case you think this is sounding like fantasy or science fiction, it’s not, this is a semi-autobiographical novel, much of it corresponds to the author’s experience and perceived reality of the world.

These multiple entities exist, they are not illusions or metaphors, they have names and characteristics that manifest into different behaviours through human ‘Ada’ who simultaneously suffers from them, is supported by them, at times is even dependent on them. They are one, but with many aspects that from the external perspective risk being judged as something labelled otherwise depending on the country/culture – such as personality disorder or schizophrenia due to our limited view in defining other states of being. When one entity is more present, Ada’s way of being in the world alternates between her human personality and that of the other presence, whether it’s we, Asughara, or Saint Vincent.

Ogbanje by Akwaeke Emezi

From the perspective of Nigerian ontology (philosophical study of the nature of being), Ada (as the author also self-identifies) may be perceived as ‘ogbanje‘, a child that usually doesn’t live long and is often reborn into the same family. It is believed that these children recognise the difficulty of living in this world and choose to leave it, only on arriving at the gates of heaven they’re denied entry, they’re judged as being lazy and indolent and are sent back to try again. When they are present in the world, they often have particular psychic abilities and/or an other-worldliness about them, they’re believed by some to be possessed, they don’t particularly enjoy the dense, limited human body and experience.

Ogbanje (noun): An embodied spirit passing as human, who transitions rapidly between birth and death, i.e. possessing the ability to ‘come and go’.

Only the child Ada is saved from a death that might have sent her back by her father, a modern Igbo man with medical training from the Soviet Union and years of living in London. He did not believe in anything superstitious that might have made him view the scene he rescued her from as anything other than death. In rescuing her, he prevents the entities from leaving.

He had no idea what he had done.

Akwaeke Emezi depicts these influences and describes being human as a temporary vessel for this other kind of presence which until Ada understands and accepts it, she will continue to suffer as if she is one and not all of them. The ability to make them so real to the reader, to create what feel like real characters from them, is astounding.

“All the madnesses, each and every blinding one, they can all be traced back to the gates. Those carved monstrosities, those clay and chalk portals, existing everywhere and nowhere and all at once. They open, things are born, they close. The opening is easy, a pushing out, an expansion, an inhalation: the dust of divinity released into the world. It has to be a temporary channel, though, a thing that is sealed afterward, because the gates stink of knowledge, they cannot be left swinging wide like a slack mouth, leaking mindlessly. That would contaminate the human world – bodies are not meant to remember things from the other side. There are rules. But these are gods and they move like heated water, so the rules are softened and stretched. The gods do not care. It is not them after all, that will pay the cost.”

At one point Ada seeks out a therapist and at first her entities don’t notice, they are not always present, but they’d told her to keep them inside her head, in the marble room, so no one could see them.

So when she started looking up her “symptoms”, it felt like a betrayal – like she thought we were abnormal. How can we be, when we were her and she was us? I watched her try to tell people about us and I smiled when they told her it was normal to have different parts of yourself.

The entities try to fulfill their destiny (to return to their spirit siblings) and thus sabotage Ada’s attempts to live a human life with minimal suffering. It’s a constant challenge to navigate life, until they learn to live in harmony and she understands her purpose after an encounter with a historian, who tells her what she needs to accept.

“The name that was given to you has many connotations, you hear?” He wore glasses and spoke in a rush of words. “The python’s egg means a precious child. A child of the gods, or the deity themself. The experiences you’ve had suggest that there is a spiritual connection, which you need to go and learn about. Your journey will not be complete until you do that.” He leaned back and folded his arms. “There is nothing more anybody can tell you. It’s important for you to understand your place on this earth.”

Truly an astounding, transparent work that takes an understanding of the being part of human into another dimension. The way it seamlessly moves from the material to the immaterial, combining human and spiritual aspects of selves, on a journey to assemble some way of living with them both, in a world where the majority live within and perceive only one aspect and dimension, a world indeed, where it can be dangerous to articulate this alternate reality.

I thought it was brilliant, definitely a 5 star read for me and truly deserving of being on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

A debut novel said to have an autobiographical slant, this is how Akwaeke Emezi brilliantly articulates what the writing of it meant to them in an interview with Ms. magazine:

I wrote Freshwater as an analysis of sorts—the ogbanje figuring out what it is, ascribing legibility to itself. We look at our worlds through a limited range of lenses, and making this book meant choosing a different center to tell the story from, a different lens to look through.

Once that shift was made, it came with such clarity—the world finally making sense. Being a strange thing in a human world and not knowing what you are is immensely difficult, and I think Freshwater walks us pretty intimately through what living in that space feels like.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

New Yorker: A Startling Debut Novel Explores the Freedom of Being Multiple by Katy Waldman

Interview: The Ms. Q&A: Akwaeke Emezi on Freshwater and Finding Home by Taliah Mancini

N.B. Thank you to publisher Grove Atlantic for providing a review copy.

Buy a copy of Freshwater via Book Depository

20 thoughts on “Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

  1. Pingback: Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. I think you made better sense of this than I did, but still, I was bowled over by it. What I liked was that it really did illuminate the author’s experience… I mean, we’ve all read and seen in film various manifestations of this kind of disorder, but this book is the first to show the internal consciousness in such a vivid way and yet still work as a piece of literature.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I thought it was incredible the way the voices of the obganje narrated and had this kind of symbiotic relationship with each other and Ada, and how the cultural story/belief provides a kind of container for it. I think building a narrative around an experience like this might have been quite a healing experience for the writer, naming those aspects of themselves, seeking to understand them, trying to make a kind of peace with them, rather than medicating them into oblivion or total destruction. It was quite a ride and incredibly well done, if a little difficult to try and explain!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Claire for your great review regarding Freshwater. I loved this novel, it is the first book this year I couldn’t put down.
    The writing, the subject…perfection. I am waiting for her next novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sylvie, I knew it was going to be right for me when you shared those thoughts on GR. Yes, so much about this novel including the prose and its ability to suck the reader into this alternative reality and understand it were incredible. I liked that it avoided giving too much voice to the human mind, to the thoughts that might lead us to other conclusions, we were forced to listen to these other voices and influences and understand how they could all exist at once and how difficult that must have been for Ada to navigate an ordinary life alongside. Just astonishing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Detailed review Claire. This is a difficult novel to discuss, but you’ve really captured its essence. The marble room was one of the most perplexing (but captivating) parts of the novel for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Michael, I was really captivated by the voices in this novel right from the first chapter, it felt like something totally new and I’m still in awe of Emezi’s ability to turn these voices into conceivable characters, that really spark the imagination of the reader and crack our minds open to consider how it might be to live with these presences. It is amazing that they continue to function at such a high level, there is much to learn I’m sure in how to best manage a life experience such as this, in an alternative way to conventional psychiatric treatment.


    • I think they’re dropping the Man part, new sponsor who hasn’t demanded naming rights, yay – it would be great to see it nominated for the Booker Prize indeed, (it won’t be in the running for the Booker International though as that’s for translated fiction only).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have been very interested in hearing about this novel. I imagine it as a challenging but rewarding reading experience. I think it is doubly interesting because it reflects so closely the author’s own experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a thought-provoking read, that shares a complex human experience in a unique and unforgettable way, it’s also interesting the many ways different readers are perceiving it, according to their own cultural conditioning. Fascinating, immensely readable, I do hope it makes the short list and continues to be discussed.


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