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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 by the various selves within Ada and based in the author's realities, Freshwater dazzles with ferocious energy and serpentine grace, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.

229 pages, Hardcover

First published February 13, 2018

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Akwaeke Emezi

12 books7,089 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,493 reviews
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,921 reviews35.4k followers
December 27, 2017
When I got the depths of this novel, here during these dark hours, I was blown away! My eyes were misty at the end.
It’s absolutely the most brilliant creative book written of its kind ....
It became personal to me....looking back at my own journey- my own struggles - my own fight - my own growth - my own inner peace.

At one point I kept thinking,
“No wonder it’s soooo hard for people to get well”.
“No wonder people repeat the same repetitive unwanted behaviors for years”.

I don’t usually write reviews on my iPhone from bed -
I’m usually not ‘this’ vague about the story either. But honestly it’s best to TAKE THIS BOOK IN....read each word - digest it!
Its possible to read this novel in different ways. Many ways to experience it.

For me... I related it to our little voices in our heads ... that little voice which always speaks to us.
The critical voice -the happy voice too -
I thought about the deeper evil spirits ... the personality splits.
I loved the metaphysical storytelling. At times it felt contemporary as any other novel - ha!!
Parents - family - struggles - coming of age
- interests - education - travel - sex - friends - but....
THIS IS NOT like ANY BOOK I’ve ever read!!!

It took me about 8% to understand what I was reading - what was going on...

It took me almost half way to get the DEPTS AND POWER of this novel...
And then the ending... OH MY GOSH....it’s soooo beautiful. It still wants to make me cry!!!!

“Freshwater” is FRESH!!! Sooooooooo GORGEOUSLY written....
It allowed me to distant myself - FROM - myself - and be incredibly thankful that I have made remarkable growth in the area of healing in my lifetime.

This is one of the most unique and symbolic transforming books I’ve ever read!!!!

Thank you Grove Atlantic, Netgalley, and the brilliant author Akwaeke Emezi
Profile Image for Felice Laverne.
Author 1 book3,198 followers
February 12, 2020
It’s not easy to persuade a human to end their life – they’re very attached to it, even when it makes them miserable, and Ada was no different. But it’s not the decision to cross back that’s difficult; it’s the crossing itself.

Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is a novel of layers that do not always nicely overlap; in fact, the pieces often seem to not fit together at all. It is a novel born from trauma and emotional paroxysms, a read that erupts with them throughout. You have to peel back the layers to get to what Emezi has laid underneath, to find the gems, to find the hidden well of pain and sentiment offered here, and that may not be a satisfying journey for many readers.

Freshwater is the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman with a fractured self, or multiple personalities, due to the gods who have mistakenly taken root in her body and mind. It is a dark novel portraying the malevolence within us – that darkness at the very deepest depths of us that we hope to never have to witness of ourselves or in others. It is a novel that portrays the psychological effects of such darkness and emotional violence. When Ada comes into adulthood and leaves her splintered home for a new existence in a Virginia college, a traumatic sexual experience further shatters her mind and her multiple personalities are born. Ada fights a battle between herself, her other selves and her God she left behind, a battle to regain her equilibrium that veers her onto a dangerous course of self-destructive behavior. A path of bloodshed, tears and an equal dose of sexual trauma and exploration. Ada fights with herself, realizing something is wrong. She wants a change but her other personalities refuse to let her go.

Let me tell you now, I loved her because in the moment of her devastation, the moment she lost her mind, that girl reached for me so hard that she went completely mad, and I loved her because when I flooded through, she spread herself open and took me in without hesitation, bawling and broken, she absorbed me fiercely, all the way; she denied me nothing. I loved her because she gave me a name.

Freshwater was a novel that took a lot of patience for me to read. If you’re a reader who clings to continuity, who needs progressive character development to follow the path a protagonist’s life, or a reader who is in the least bit squeamish, this will likely prove to be a difficult read for you. Not an unworthy read – but a difficult one. The narrative leapt back and forth in time with new personalities and overlapping stories already told being retold differently. This book was a collage, a kaleidoscope, a reflection of a splintered self. Given the subject matter, the shattered quality of the narrative is understandable but at times arduous to read.

It was hard for me to fully connect with Freshwater when the moments of truth, heartbreak and the demise of entire relationships in Ada’s life were narrated, not fully shown in action. Emezi’s debut novel is more about the relationship between Ada and her other selves –internally—than it is about her outward experiences in the world. It wasn’t enough for me, though some parts of the novel were absolutely gripping, and there were some lovely lines scattered throughout.

He wanted to pretend he was somehow better than he knew he was; he wasn’t ready to throw himself into sin. Humans find it easier to just lie and lie to themselves.

However, in those neglected moments (which is probably why the book is relatively short) the novel loses its soul and misses opportunities.

Other qualms:

The quote headings at the start of each chapter made no sense to me in the context of the story. Often, they made no sense to me at all though I got the feeling that they were Nigerian sayings. And I had too many WTF moments here because of the haphazard way life events and realizations were thrown into the narrative, no build-up, just dumped. I found myself reading whole passages and thinking, Where did this come from – outta thin air? That was the main issue I had with this novel: there was no real character development aside from Ada and Ewan, just a series of narrations and events.

I also never understood the title of the book. There was a reference to it at the end of the novel, but I found it to be too cryptic and unclear, so I still have no idea what it was trying to convey, why it was the namesake of the book. Because of this, I had the noteworthy experience of loving and hating Freshwater. There were moments where I couldn’t wait to turn the page and others where I skimmed past the incoherence of the We. Because of that, Freshwater’s dazzling and dreadful moments condensed down into a grade of 3 stars overall. ***

*I received an advance-read copy of the book from the publisher, Grove Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


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Profile Image for Michael.
657 reviews966 followers
April 20, 2020
Forceful and harrowing, Freshwater follows Ada, a young Nigerian girl, as she comes of age while contending with multiple personalities and prolonged trauma. The nonlinear storyline tracks Ada as she endures a dysfunctional upbringing in Nigeria only to come into close contact with a series of violent men in America as a precocious college student; it's told from the perspective of a host of spirits called ogbanje, who occupy the protagonist's body and exert strong control over her actions. In lyrical prose Emezi brings to life a talented but troubled mind, plagued by malevolent spirits who seek solace in disorder. Incredibly imaginative, and well worth checking out and revisiting over the years.
Profile Image for karen.
3,976 reviews170k followers
June 25, 2022

fulfilling my 2019 goal to read (at least) one book each month that i bought in hardcover and put off reading long enough that it is now in paperback.

this is a fucking terrific book.

now that that’s out of the way: a brief digression with two lessons at its core. one for authors about how they should never let a ‘bad’ review discourage them, and one for readers about how sometimes the wrong book can lead you to the right one.

i recently read emezi’s soon-to-be-released YA novel Pet, which has gotten a ton of gushing prepub attention, and many five star reviews on here. i thought it was fine but not my kind of great, so i gave it three stars, which is a perfectly good and respectable rating. i know some authors who get all dispirited over their three-star ratings (and to be clear—i am not suggesting that emezi is one of them), but to me, three stars means anywhere from okay to pretty good but just not my kind of great. but, and here’s where it’s the readers’ turn to pay attention: i bought Freshwater the day it came out because it seemed to be so exactly my kind of great; dark and mythical and fierce, but then life and other books got in the way and i never got around to reading it. so after being only medium about Pet, i finally decided to read Freshwater, to see if i was right about my own tastes, and here we are.

this book is ferocious and fast-paced and under 300 pages, but there’s an emotional weight to it that requires you to consciously stop yourself from tearing through so you can slow down and appreciate it. the writing is beautiful and the ‘what’ of it is a multilayered mindfuck which suggests several equally satisfying interpretive conclusions that, due to the stylistic decisions, do not—oddly—conflict with each other or cancel each other out.

at its most cliffs notes, it's about identity and the divided self. whether that division is the result of a nonbinary gender identity, mental illness, psychic fracturing as a PTSD-related coping mechanism, or just—you know—a bunch of pesky ogbanje inhabiting your human skin alongside you, is a distinction—not irrelevant, necessarily, just that it all looks pretty similar from the outside—an inconsistency of behavior, a fluid sense of self.

on the inside, it’s incredibly psychologically dislocating and their writing really conveys the feeling of being caged in the human body with an ‘other;’ it’s claustrophobic, where ada is at times helpless, at times complicit or grateful for someone/thing else taking over the demands of the body, even when it is used in a self-destructive manner.

it’s ambiguous, symbolic, metaphorical, deeply distressing. the interpretation is as fluid and chaotic as anything else in the book, including its writing style, which reminded me a lot of God Head; a book that was so vividly able to replicate the inner landscape of a mental disorder.

this one plays rough; there is a lot of trauma in these pages: cutting, eating disorders, sexual assault and abuse, depression, suicide, etc.

the idea of cutting as a means of making blood sacrifices to supernatural entities, scars serving as physical evidence of devotion, was not something i have seen explored elsewhere and was particularly powerful and oddly lovely:

We understood. It is like we said: when gods awaken in you, sometimes you carve yourself up to satisfy them.

there’s an emphasis on the body throughout, on the idea of transformation—of cutting skin, hair, , of starving it down to size, on letting it explore its sexuality with different genders and through experiences motivated by love, by hatred, curiosity, boredom; the soft fragile shell of the human body battered by the appetites of gods.

it’s a scenario with so much promise, and one that i remember being excited by in anne rice’s The Tale of the Body Thief, which conceptual potential ended up being squandered in what was basically boring erotica. here, it’s gorgeous and cruel and profound.

love love loved it.

here is a thing i wrote about it for a project in which i participated, which is pretty much what i said about it here, only with all those capital letters people make you use when you’re being a professional person:

A compelling and oftentimes disturbing debut with autobiographical overtones in which trans, non-binary author Emezi borrows from African mythology to construct a narrative about identity and the divided self, using the inhabiting-spirits called ogbanje from their Nigerian homeland to mimic the claustrophobic experience of being just one of many entities contained within a human shell, and not always the dominant one. The ogbanje gain and cede power, resulting in a fluidity in terms of the body’s gender identity, sexual orientation, and degree of promiscuity; an inconsistency of personality that presents as mental disorder or instability. It is a fever dream of a story, narrated by the different spirits crowding a young woman’s body, and it is emotionally moving and frequently jarring, not only for its fast pacing and trading-off control of the body and mind, but for the powerful and painfully triggering inclusion of scenes depicting self-harm, mental illness, eating disorders, cutting, sexual assault and abuse, and PTSD. 

4 1/2 stars

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Profile Image for Hannah.
588 reviews1,045 followers
January 30, 2018
This was absolutely stunning. From the very first page I knew I was in for something extraordinary and unlike anything I have ever read. This debut combines many things I adore in books: unconventional framing and unreliable narrators, a story that gets recontextualized constantly and kept me on my toes, a basis in mythology that informed but did not over-shadow the actual story, perfect sentence structure that packs an unbelievable punch, and so many more things that I am still struggling to adequately talk about.

This is Ada’s story, or more accurately Ada’s and her other personalities’ story. The first part is told in a we-perspective from her alternate personalities, brothersisters based in Nigerian mythology, that frame her story in what that means to them rather than her. The Ada, as she is called by them, then moves to the US where a traumatic events leads to a further fragmentation of self, Asụghara and Saint Vincent who will take over more and more. These two selves are even more different to her than the brothersisters were and tend to wreck havoc in her life. This description does not really do the book any justice because more than a straightforward narrative, the story unfolds forward and backwards with things happening (or not?) and is highly introspective. As I was wondering about the timeline, Akwaeke Emezi pulled the rug under me more often than I could count, leaving my head spinning and my heart broken.

I do not think I can do this book justice, but believe me when I say that this is an extraordinary achievement and unlike anything I read before. This will for sure stay with me and keep me thinking for months to come.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Grove Press in exchange for an honest review.

You can find this review and other thoughts on my blog.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
659 reviews840 followers
February 22, 2020
“The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside—maybe that’s the exact definition of madness, come to think of it.”

<Image result for akwaeke emezi

For much of Akwaeke Emezi's Freshwater I didn't know what was happening, but it was absolutely amazing! As strange as it sounds, the book deals with suicide, self-harm, rape and the mental health of the main character, Ada, from a non-human centered perspective. Instead, it is narrated from the perspective of gods or spirit selves who merge with Ada after she is sexually assaulted.

I read an interview of Emezi to try to gain some perspective (something I'm still in definite need of as I try to write a review for this novel). Emezi calls the gods she describes as ogbanje, "children who die over and over again" while disputing the term possessed as a binary and inadequate way of looking at plural personalities. Says Emezi of her main character, "Ada is as a singular collective and plural individual."

Despite fantastical elements, Emezi means for this novel to be more like an autobiography. Says Emezi, "It’s an autobiographical novel – a breath away from being a memoir. There are chapters in there that are my journal entries which I copied and pasted. There are a couple of things about writing it this way: first, the things that people think are fictionalised are not fictionalised. Second, I wanted to make clear it was autobiography, otherwise it would be considered to be very fantastical. I wanted readers to be sure that it was not magical realism or speculative fiction. It’s what has actually happened! I’m using fiction as a filter for it." (Emezi's quotes are from a Guardian Interview published 20 October 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/books/201...).

There's so much in Freshwater to twist your mind around. The way the story is told is also fascinating. Given the themes and the approach Emezi uses, this novel will not appeal to some readers. However, Freshwater is a novel that I will read again and one I highly recommend!
Profile Image for Dianne.
556 reviews890 followers
April 21, 2018
How to review this, how to review this............

The first 50 pages or so of this book were really tough for me. I felt like I was physically fighting the book, trying to wrestle it into submission. After the initial struggle, I fell into a somewhat uneasy rhythm with the story but I never quite managed to embrace it. I can appreciate it somewhat remotely as a very original and inspired work of art, but it stirs very little depth of feeling or emotion in me.

This seems to be an allegorical narrative about mental illness, sexual identity and other ways in which a person might feel "other." The story is narrated by various selves contained within Ada, who apparently suffers from multiple personality disorder. The selves express themselves as gods called ogbanje. They contend with each other inside Ada's mind, with other gods outside of Ada that they refer to as "brothersisters," and with Ada herself. It's a funky scene, starting with Ada's birth in Nigeria to her adulthood in the US.

The writing is very dense and lofty - well written and imaginative for sure, but tedious at the same time. It just all felt too much, too much, too much.

I'd rate this as a 3.5, but am rounding down because, for me, it was more chore than pleasure. Don't let my lukewarm review stop you from reading this book; it has gotten stellar reviews from my most trusted Goodreads friends. Sometimes books just don't speak to you, no matter how skillful the execution and the talents of the writer.

Thanks to NetGalley and Grove Press for an ARC of this novel. My review, however, is based on the hardcover version.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,397 reviews802 followers
November 18, 2019
To those of us
with one foot
on the other side."
“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.”

Outstanding, mesmerising, poetically macabre and believably unbelievable. “The Ada”, as her captive spirits refer to her, is never alone. Her constant mental companions are spirits which should have been able to possess and influence her and then come and go at will, through the gates, across the bridge.

But not these mischievous, evil beings. The gods closed the gates behind them, so they lead The Ada into all sorts of trouble, both in Nigeria where she was born, and which has a tradition of ogbanje possessing children, and in the US when her family migrates.

The ogbanje are reminiscent of the scary faeries at the bottom of the garden (Ireland’s Little People who steal children and some adults and leave changelings in their place), the witches of the witch trials, poltergeists, and malevolent voodoo spirits. She befriends a girl familiar with the voodoo traditions, too.

Ada grows up, and a little like the well-known The Three Faces Of Eve, has a split personality, influenced not only by the first two WE who were born with her, but also by a wild and naughty girl, Asughara, who is "born" when Ada first has sex. A real troublemaker, but sometimes Ada enjoys the excuse to cut loose.

Speaking of cutting, she does that, too, “feeding” her demons, as it were. The only way they can enjoy more lives is to escape this life and cross back over, as they were supposed to do.

But remember? The gates closed behind them, so you know what that means? Who’s the bridge? Their “host” body, that's who, and while Ada/Asughara bounces from lover to anorexia to psychiatric ward and back again, they all have conversations with her, and they may even hug her somehow. Sometimes she feels safest "inside" with them.

She survives the American college experience, the club scene, pubs, you name it. She/they have an active social and love life and don’t miss much!

It’s a wonderful read and I found it absolutely compelling.

I especially enjoyed this author’s thank you to award-winning Nigerian author, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie:

“Chimamanda Adichie, for the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop and the ripples from that. For that moment when I started to tell you about the book and you tilted your head, looked at me, and said, ‘Ah, so you’re an ogbanje.’

Emezi obviously got it right. AND THIS IS A DEBUT!!!

Thanks to NetGalley and Grove Press for the review copy from which I’ve quoted, so quotes may be changed.

This isn't due for publication until February 2018 but is available on NetGalley until then, so I’m posting my review early to encourage other reviewers to have a look.

UPDATE: https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/writer...
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,088 reviews30.1k followers
February 22, 2018
4 fresh, imaginative stars to Freshwater! The most creative book I’ve read this year! 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

I have read nothing like Freshwater before. It is hard to categorize. It is literary fiction, but what else? Magical realism? Mysticism? The author noted at the end that this was her spiritual book, so I will go with spiritual literary fiction.

I went with the literal flow while I was reading. Freshwater could be murky, even incoherent, at times. Ada was born in Nigeria, a difficult baby with a “fractured self.” What transpired is hard to describe but as Ada grew up, the selves within her grew stronger and more powerful. Ada took the backseat, while her alternative selves were in charge, and her life became dangerous and volatile.

I do not want to spoil anything, so I am keeping this review brief. This is a novel, the layers, the writing, you have to experience for yourself. Keep your expectations loose, your mind open. If you enjoy gorgeous prose with profound messages of healing, hope, and truth, Freshwater is a most worthy read.

Thank you to Akwaeke Emezi (I’m eagerly awaiting your next wondrous work!), Grove Atlantic, and Netgalley/Edelweiss for the complimentary copy.
Profile Image for Rachel.
550 reviews863 followers
February 12, 2018
It's hard to talk about something that has no precedent. Freshwater is utterly unique, and the result is breathtaking. It's a dark, sensual, and thoughtful novel about a young woman coming to terms with and accepting the multiple identities that define her.

The details of Ada's life - raised in Nigeria, relocated to the U.S. for college - are only an elemental framework for what is ultimately an introspective story. The majority of this book is narrated by a chorus of Ada's selves - conceptualized as Nigerian ogbanje - until a traumatic assault in college causes two of these selves to take shape, as Asụghara and Saint Vincent.

What I found so stimulating about this novel is that it challenged a lot of my conceptions about health and identity, particularly in how these are often so heavily informed by western culture. The perceived objectivity of psychology is something I've always found comforting and taken for granted, but with this book, I'm reminded of the significance of the relationship between culture and identity. Steeped in Igbo folklore, Freshwater chronicles Ada's journey (and Emezi's, as the book is informed by a lot of autobiographical elements) in a way that's challenging, unexpected, and beautiful.

Emezi's prose is so assured and lyrical it's hard to believe this is a debut. This is an author to watch and a novel that absolutely everyone should read.

Thank you to Netgalley, Grove Press, and Akwaeke Emezi for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Elle (ellexamines).
1,083 reviews17.3k followers
September 5, 2020
You must study the pattern of the shattering before you can piece it back together.

Freshwater is an exploration of how one must acknowledge the mixing of their realities to find peace with themselves. Following Ada, who has multiple gods contained within her, this brilliantly-written little novel goes into the point of view of first her younger gods, and then one specific god within her, Asugara.

So. I loved this book, from its engaging writing to its incredible character building. But I think to explain why it resonates so strongly, you need to unpack the themes.

Asugara’s purpose is as a living embodiment of Ada’s trauma: she is the strength, or so she thinks, to Ada’s complicated outside. “We’re the barrier between you and madness”, Asugara tells Ada, and on some level this is real: when she pops forth, she finds an Ada broken, an Ada who she must save. Ada crafts Asugara to protect her from trauma. Asugara, in turn, turns to hypersexuality and destructive behavior as a means of escaping trauma.

For Ada, it is much easier for her to hide behind a persona, who guards her from trauma, than to relearn intimacy. Asugara serves as another manifestation of her hate for herself. Ada, too, clearly understands the role Asugara has played in helping her trauma: “You had to exist. I wasn’t ready”.
After all, was I not the hunger in Ada? I was made out of desire.

Yet Ada’s dependence on Asugara also has elements of codependency. “I don’t think anyone else will want me without you… I’m the damaged and broken one; you’re the bright and shiny one. Who are they going to love more?” And as multiple selves, she cannot fully give of herself. When Ewan finally lets go of his love for control, ready to craft an actually committed relationship with Ada, Asugara responds “you’re not yours to give.” This time, it is not a joy to say the cutting thing: the knowledge that “all those parts she wanted to give, the parts that would complete the love they had—all those parts were gone”. It takes Asugara years to know the truth, that “keeping her walled off from Ewan killed any chance they had at making it out together”. Keeping one side of Ada, it is clear, is not the solution.

Yet Ada’s darker self is not herself without feeling, without need to be loved. Yshwa’s big moment to Asugara is a proclamation that “I’m not ashamed of you… you know I love you”. Asugara flinches in response. She is Ada’s invulnerable side: she is not ready to be loved. But her vulnerability exists, too. When Ada begins to break free from her influence and suggests therapy, telling Asugara that she cannot continue to punish others, Asugara’s response is a tearful scream: “Were we not innocent enough to be spared?”. Indeed, as the novel continues, it becomes clear that she has been hurting others because she, herself, has been hurt.
I didn’t have anyone to hold me and now I don’t have anyone to kill me. You’d think he’d come through on at least one of these points.

As Emezi mentions in her interview, the concept of Ogbanje was oppressed under colonialism; black people, under colonialism, were forced to change identity, to commute self. Women and nonbinary people, likewise, have had their bodies commodified. To heal, we must come to terms with the multiplicity of identity we have developed through trauma, and move into the future as our whole selves: good, bad, and everything in between.

In an interview with The Rumpus, Emezi described their gender transition not as transitioning gender identity but “perhaps transitioning to an ogbanje, and what that looks like when you mix realities.” In the end, Ada’s freedom does not come of letting go of her divine parts: her freedom comes in recognizing them, and working with them. Ada’s way to saving is to piece herself back together, her godhood and all. In the final pages of the novel, she tells us: “I am my others; we are one and we are many”. She is infinity, a python.

TW: sexual assault, domestic abuse, disordered eating, attempted suicide.

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Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,586 reviews1,984 followers
September 11, 2019
I did an unusual thing before writing this review, I looked at what other people have said about the book. Usually I like coming to a book without any advance knowledge and reviewing it without any awareness of its reception, but this time I was curious. It is a hard book to pin down, I was still trying to figure out which words I could use to describe it. It turns out that seeing the reviews helped. I saw many people calling this book "magical realism" and I knew right away that this was wrong, at least for me. For me, this book feels literal not figurative, it is not supposed to be magical, it is simply supposed to be real. There are threads of mythology, threads of religion, but I don't see the book as fitting into "magical realism" at all. That gave me some clarity.

I also read a little bit of Emezi's writing and press around the book's release, and found some of their tweets where they lay out what the book is meant to be. And while it was interesting to see their point of view, ultimately as a reader you have your own experience with the book. I found their notes helpful, but I didn't use them as a decisive primer on how to interpret my experience.

Ultimately where I've come down is a bit muddled, my impressions are hazy, seen through smoke, and that feels just right. FRESHWATER is a book that uses Igbo religion to understand the way the self divides and fragments to protect itself. It is a book about trauma (and there is plenty of it) and what a person must do when you cannot be saved from it but you still must survive it. Ada is the primary body in the book but not the primary character, for Ada is an ogbanje. Ada exists not as one self but as several selves, and those selves negotiate with each other for control of her body to help her survive in the world. Ada is scarred by sexual assault so Asughara takes over for Ada's sex life. Saint Vincent feels determinedly un-feminine and eventually is able to define Ada's gender in a way that makes all the selves feel more whole.

Traditionally ogbanje are described as trickster spirits, reincarnated over and over again to torment mothers. But Emezi sees the ogbanje as something else, as several selves. While reading the book I decided to take the descriptions on their face, to see the selves as spirits or gods, and gradually figure out how it all fit together. I have a different view of it now that it's done, but I feel comfortable with my reading. There's something about seeing this too much as a metaphor for mental illness that rubs me wrong, that feels like it's imposing a lens the book doesn't want you to have. To me, this doesn't feel like a book that is using metaphor to describe multiple personality disorder or depression or gender dysphoria or suicidality, it feels like something else entirely and that's the reading that felt right to me.

The other selves do most of the narrating and their voices are astonishing and chilling. They view Ada with affection but also detachment, their remove from human endeavors would seem to hold you at a distance and yet I didn't feel that way at all. I was spellbound. This book is a true feat, with prose and structure and voice and concepts that all feel vivid and singular. It is both bold and quiet, it is shattering and soothing, I can't imagine I will read a more interesting book this year.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,474 reviews2,307 followers
January 3, 2020
Nominated for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2019
"Freshwater" cleverly discusses the human mind by inquiring what actually constitutes "mental illness": To what degree is our inner fragmentation - the multitude of feelings and urges, the freedom to be many things - part of the human condition, and when does it become harmful and destructive? Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi employs African myths and Igbo spirituality in order to tell the story of Ada, who might suffer from bipolar disorder - or not. Or maybe the terms used by mental health professionals are not suitable to describe her experience at all?

Ada was prayed into existence by her parents and is possessed by gods - she is many: "She was contaminated with us, a godly parasite with many heads, roaring inside the marble room of her mind." The god named Asughara is reckless and fueled by anger, but also protects Ada from the trauma that is tormenting her. Saint Vincent, on the other hand, is gentle and roaming her dreams (plus there are others, less mentioned ones, like Yshwa who seems to be a Christ-like figure). To live with the gods in one entity becomes more and more painful for Ada, she feels desperate, exhausted and "sectioned" - at the same time, one wonders if the gods aren't right when they are saying "we're the buffer between you and madness, we're not the madness".

Emezi touches upon many topics during her story, among them child abuse, rape, self-harm, alcohol, suicide, toxic relationships, and depression. Gender also plays a major role, with Ada identifying as a non-binary transgender person ("She could move between boy and girl, which was freedom, for her and for us (the gods).") - just like the author who invented her. In many ways, this is a roman à clef (hint: Also pay attention to surgeries, tattoos, and dresses mentioned, among other things).

Some of the possible psychological reasons for Ada's painful multiplicity are given very late in the text, there are important hints at around 50 % and as late as 90 % of the book that feel a little like a deus ex machina (ha! sorry) - clearly, an author can choose to structure her narrative like that, but I am not a fan. My main criticism is very subjective though - I never really warmed to the text, and I wasn't invested in the story. The whole novel is a fragmented, highly constructed experiment in which gods speak in very detached, abstract voices. Does this make sense poetically? Absolutely. I didn't enjoy reading it though.

But I clearly see how people could love this book and admire Emezi for her inventive, edgy story that dares to be ambiguous, peculiar and challenging.
Profile Image for Marchpane.
293 reviews2,106 followers
March 4, 2019
A unique examination of painful adolescence

Freshwater is bewitching, bewildering and arresting in equal measure. The novel combines an almost stream-of-consciousness narrative style with the central conceit of the multiple narrators being spirits or deities that inhabit the protagonist's mind, forming a sort of plural identity. The result is an interesting perspective on a fractured sense of self. It is the reader's experience of this perspective, rather than the actual plot, that fuels the book. It's quite wonderful.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
770 reviews1,147 followers
June 5, 2019
"“The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.”

25 pages into this book, I was ready to DNF it. I told myself I'd stick with it until page 50 though I dreaded trudging my way through 25 more pages. Well!! By page 50 I was utterly entranced. Holy crap was this a good book! It is the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (though the book never diagnoses her). The story is told through her alter personalities, and is an accurate portrayal of the fractured ego. It shows the strength of the person for whom the self shatters into many. Just as the sapling that bends with the wind is the one that survives, sometimes in order to survive childhood trauma, the strong mind has to bend so that the self can endure. Freshwater captures that survival tactic so skillfully, the voices of the others, the insistence that only they can protect the body and self. Indeed, they must materialize because there is no one else to protect the child and that is what they do, even once the child is grown.

The prose in Freshwater is glorious, it is song, it is poetry. Excruciating in its beauty. It is metaphysical and allegorical. It is captivating and intense. It explores not just the alternate selves, but also the need for self mutilation and the feeling of strength and control gained by denying the body food. It explores sexuality and gender. It is not a long novel and yet it is powerful. Akwaeke Emezi is brilliant and I cannot praise this book highly enough.
Profile Image for Evelina | AvalinahsBooks.
854 reviews443 followers
February 23, 2018
Freshwater is a stunning novel, one that I dove into and couldn't surface out of for a while. It's like a pool of dark water that you don't really even want to get out of. And I was sad when the book finished - despite it being quite a violent and shaking experience. I am not lying when I say I intend to read it again.

This review is quite long, so I suggest reading it on my blog.

This Story Is What You Make Of It

The most incredible aspect of Freshwater is that there are two ways to read it: either as magical realism, or as stark naked reality. I chose to read it as magical realism. Keep that in mind when you read this review. And it's not that things change based on how you read it - it's that your understanding of the story changes. So let's pause a moment here to consider how amazing a story must be, if it can have two layers like that. That's partly why I want to reread it.

Understanding The Fractured Self

I don't know if there are many novels with a main character who suffers a personality disorder, particularly - novels where a character like that isn't just written off as 'not quite all there'. Ada is portrayed as completely normal despite her problems, and in multiple instances it is stressed that she is sane, and that none of this is her fault. This is something that I would like to see more often in literature, when it comes to mental health.

While reading this, and knowing none of the author's backstory, I kept wondering if this is how it really is for people with multiple personalities. I know I'm probably a bad reviewer for not looking this up and considering the book simply on its own, but regardless of whether it's well researched or actually experienced by the author or someone close to them, I loved reading about the experiences of the main character because it helped me learn more about such personalities and what they go through. Don't get me wrong - nothing that she goes through is even remotely rosy or beautiful. It's all dark, messed up and very painful. But getting behind the eyes of such a person through fiction is why we should be reading books. It's education in empathy and understanding. And that's why I loved this.

The Mythology

As I mentioned, I chose to read Freshwater as more or less magical realism, so I went with the fact that Ada's suffering comes from the fact that she is essentially multiple beings, born into one, and not given the gift of forgetting - being born aware. That was an amazing concept to wrap my mind around. Imagining how such dynamics would shape a person, affect their growth. Like a dark fairytale, where you can have your wish granted, but at a price you can't even fathom - one cannot be a powerful, ageless being and not pay a price. Seeing and explaining mental health problems through the prism of demons and old gods might not always work in our reality, but it's an incredible concept - how traumatic events can both be interpreted as a forming of a new personality branch, or as a surfacing of an ancient being in a person's mind. This is a battle between the old, shamanistic worldview, and the modern scientific one.

There is a reason there is a two-headed snake on the cover. But I won't spoil. Read the book!

Strangely? It's Relatable

Maybe it should worry me that I could relate to a character who had life threatening mental illness? But I believe that you could as well. Even if just in little ways, it's not hard to see how traumatic events can change you, branch out new traits in you, even if you're 'normal'. Maybe you won't develop a new personality branch, but it's easy to say you won't be the same person as you were before the event. It was an incredible experience having these ideas put in my mind, ideas I've never pondered before.

The #OwnVoices

You might have noticed that I'm not talking about the #OwnVoices bit too much. Partly, it's because I wanted my review to focus on the mental health bit (and I can't confirm whether that part is #OwnVoices or not), and partly it's because it's not really my place to talk too much about the PoC part of #OwnVoices. But yes - it's totally there. There is talk about race, about what it means to be from another place, to lose your roots.In fact, that's the main theme - that you can only heal yourself, when you find your roots, know where you are from. The whole mythology bit is steeped in wonderful names, legends and religious lore of Nigeria. But I will not talk much cause I'm very uninformed! So forgive me and just experience it yourself. It's well worth it.

But Beware Of The Triggers

Oh yeah, this book has triggers - loads of them. Nothing with these tough topics could be free of them - and this book has rape, suicide attempts, a lot of suicidal ideation, lots of violence, some of it contains blood etc., brutal accidents, drugs... You name it. Well, I don't think it contains murder or animal abuse, but that's about it. If you are sensitive, keep in mind that you can't read this book without submersion. And it's pretty dark waters.

Other Books You Might Like

I'm surprised that it wasn't hard to find some recommendations that are connected in at least one way or another. Heart Berries is a memoir of a First Nations/Native American woman struggling with mental illness and her place in the world, In Case I Go is about a child who ends up being haunted by his grandfather's spirit over old secrets of the past, also related to the indigenous - and this is similar both because of the 'your roots' themes, and the double personality, or someone else's personality inhabiting your mind. An Unkindness of Ghosts doesn't exactly have the personalities theme, but it has a lot to say about mental illness, and is both #OwnVoices and talks a lot about Black Culture. And The Gargoyle, perhaps the most different of all of these, also meshes magical realism with mental illness, and also talks about bodily harm.

Heart Berries A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot In Case I go by Angie Abdou An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

I thank Grove Press for giving me a free copy of the book in exchange to my honest opinion.

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Profile Image for Ify.
165 reviews179 followers
August 20, 2018
Still cementing my thoughts on this, but the long story short is: I didn't like this novel- the writing and execution. There was a lot more telling than showing with minimal buildup and character development.
My interest in this novel is rooted in being a follower of Akwaeke's social media platforms. So, I was beside myself with excitement when she announced its publication a while back. Earlier this year, I attempted to read Freshwater, but the few pages I read failed to hold my interest. But I was determined to try again.

The premise, an exploration of the fractured self of a Nigerian woman (Ada), is intriguing and I wanted to know more. The novel opens with the spirits' perspective,"we" and it took me a minute to adjust to the confusing style of narration. In essence, Ada is an ogbanje and contains a host of spirits, and some became strengthened as a result of certain life experiences. The novel narrates how they upheaved and controlled Ada, despite her desire for a better/different life. I preferred the parts of the book that were set in Umuahia. When Ada moves to Virginia for college, then later Boston, and travels to other places, the novel loses its sense of place. Maybe that was intentional.

Navidad Thelamor's review best captures how I felt about this novel. This novel requires patience from the reader with the leaps between perspectives, the back and forth between timelines, and honestly, the structure and writing in general. My main qualm with this novel is that Ada's life felt narrated in bullet points, rather than fleshed out. Some things were simply stated instead of shown. For instance, there's mention that Ada was a great student, but bruh, I can't even tell you what classes she took or what she majored in. There wasn't much build-up or development like I'm used to with literary novels, and perhaps therein lies the issue: I expected a literary novel. Please describe the color of the sky, the dress you're wearing, what you have on your feet etc. Give me all the details.

However, because a lot of details coincide with the author's life, I wondered if in an attempt to make this novel seem less autobiographical and more fictional, certain details were left out, resulting in superficiality. Yeah, this was sadly a huge miss for me.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,254 reviews49 followers
April 29, 2019
Update 29/4/19 - I am disappointed that this missed the shortlist for the Women's Prize, and suspect the reason may have had more to do with doubt over the eligibility of the author than the quality of the book.

I have been a little reluctant to read this one, but its inclusion on the Women's Prize longlist gave it the push I needed, and I found it very impressive. Part of my reluctance is down to having read Ben Okri's The Famished Road last year - which has superficial similarities in that it is largely set in the Nigerian spirit world and in both cases the central character is an ogbanje or spirit child. This book is a lot more personal and much easier to follow, and just as vividly imaginative.

As anyone who has been following the discussion of the Women's Prize will doubtless be aware, Emezi's own sexuality is ambiguous, and as a trans person this presents problems in choosing the right personal pronoun, so I'll settle for "their" as this seems to be the accepted form in the articles I have seen, and it seems appropriate when discussing a plural personality. Apologies if anything I say causes any offence - if so it is through plain ignorance.

Emezi describes the b0ok as largely autobiographical, and the external events of the book are largely true to their life, as perhaps is the multiple/conflicted personality. In the book the ogbanje is known as Ada, but much of the book is narrated by the other spirits who inhabit her - the mysterious plural "we" initially, then the uninhibited and sexually voracious Asughara and the increasingly dominant male Saint Vincent. Ada's ambiguous relationship to Christianity also comes into it, the Jesus figure Yshwa is portrayed as another similar spirit, who prefers to ignore humanity.

Although I enjoyed this book and would recommend it, I do not feel qualified to comment on much of the content, so it would be better to read it and decide for yourself.
Profile Image for Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac).
660 reviews587 followers
July 26, 2019
Akwaeke Emezi’s debut is one of the most compelling—dare I say, bewitching—literary novels of recent years, largely a function of its incantatory prose and idiosyncratic narrative style. Its hero, Ada, is no mere mortal sufferer of multiple personalities but rather an Igbo deity struggling with incarnation. Who knew the novel form was porous enough—could be stretched enough—for such a story to roar through its gates?

My BookTube review: https://youtu.be/K3q5r8uDKdI
Profile Image for Trudie.
520 reviews553 followers
April 24, 2019
I have been procrastinating upon writing this review for a few reasons. The main one being that I can't shake the feeling that not liking this says something about my inability to see things from the authors point of view, thus a failure for me as a reader. It is always a problem for me with books that have one leg based in autobiography and another in some spiritual realm. I am forever needing to know what really happened. Perhaps most detrimental to my appreciation was my general reluctance to engage with matters meta-physical or transcendental. Passages like this drove me crazy :

Perhaps she would call Santa Marta by her other name, Filomena Lubana, and warn her not to send her husband into Ada's dreams. San Elias, El Baron del Cementerio, the Baron. Whoever guards the underworld guards Ala's womb you see; they are the same place. The Baron stepped over an island and into twenty-one rivers to put his name on the Ada's tongue, so she called it out. ( What do you do when Iwa wants you? No-that is a different story-forget the Baron. ) It would be a warning, we decided, Ala to Filomena Lubana, a warning that the child was not hers. Nine Marta bore and nine Marta buried. The Ada has always belonged to the Ala, and Ala is not inclined to share. Take away those brown eggs and honey.

Even while typing this out and thinking about it within the context of the novel, I still think I would fail a reading comprehension test on this passage. Who brought the brown eggs ? Was it the Baron ? Why are there 21 rivers ? I can feel beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead ...

Having said all that, I did enjoy the first section of this novel when young Ada is learning to live with multiple spirits in their body, at that point I came closest to seeing the flashes of brilliance that so many other readers have noted in their reviews of this novel.

So in summary I feel obliged to admire the level of difficulty of what was attempted here but I can't deny my lack of enjoyment for the experience as a whole.
Profile Image for jade.
489 reviews283 followers
September 14, 2020
“earlier, when we said she went mad, we lied. she has always been sane. it’s just that she was contaminated with us, a godly parasite with many heads, roaring inside the marble room of her mind.”

this book emptied out my mind.

after finishing it, i went outside and stared into the greenery of my garden, contemplating my existence while the first chilly autumn breeze blew straight through my thoughts.

if that sounds dramatic, i’m really not trying to be; it’s just that freshwater is the sort of forceful read that shoves you outside of yourself and makes you think.

about identity, about the relationship between our minds and our bodies, about reclaiming space and reclaiming heritage. about coming into one’s own; slowly, painfully, stripping off old skins one by one.

in this semi-autobiographical novel, we follow the nigerian-malaysian ada from her birth all the way up to adulthood, through her difficult childhood, troubled teens, and harrowing college years. the story is not told in a linear way: the various slices and snippets of ada’s life are told out of order and in interlocking ways, revealing the right scene at the right time.

they’re also told through multiple perspectives, because ada is not just ada; ada is an ogbanje, a person housing multiple spirits inside her body which all take the reigns at various times. some are named in her childhood; others come into fully realized beings after great trauma is inflicted upon her.

we start off the story through the perspective of we, a combination of spirits that never quite take the explicit forefront and seem to ride ada’s body only occasionally. they’re still a constant presence in her mind; as a kid, ada names them shadow and smoke. they seem to be more observing, more distant, setting the scene and telling the reader more about the workings of the odinani and its gods and spirits.

there’s also asughara, an individual spirit whom ada names and calls upon after a traumatic experience. asughara is a spirit who loves playing sexual games with human men, invoking the cruelty of the ogbanje. she seems to embody duality, acting to both protect ada from harm by always taking over her body during sexual acts, but also working to destroy ada so she (and all the other spirits) can finally return home to their own world.

later on, we also meet saint vincent, a much more gentle and masculine presence who at times clashes with asughara. he never takes the point of view within the book, but he’s one of the driving forces behind ada’s explorations of sexuality with women and physically changing her body to match a gender expression that fits her (and both vincent and we) better.

through the christian faith of her malaysian mother, even jesus finds a place in the narrative as the ever-shifting yshwa, whom ada prays to and calls upon to keep her safe through difficult times. though the other spirits aren’t very fond of him -- as a distant god, he’s never come close enough to ada to truly help her -- they begrudgingly accept his presence.

all of this creates a complex narrative that is deeply personal and spiritual.

i suppose in some sense, one could define it as a coming of age story: we see ada struggle to become a fully realized adult, with all the traumatic and spiritual baggage that such a thing entails.

but because we read the story through the perspective of ada’s ogbanje spirits to a greater degree than we read it through ada, a whole different layer is added to it. it might be a human story, but we see it through the fragmented experience of otherworldly beings; of spirits, of gods.

it creates an uncomfortable, claustrophobic edge that’s only enhanced by emezi’s gorgeous lyrical prose: the spirits struggle and clamor at being forced into the limits of a human body, their connection to their world now severely curtailed. they find themselves unable to fulfill the pact with their brothersisters of returning home, and are unable to speak to their deity mother. the situation is agonizing to them.

their goals and wants are very different from ada’s, who’s merely trying to live her life and get through it as unscathed as possible. but as time goes on, the spirits integrate with ada to greater degrees. the ‘we’ spirits admit to loving her, to being fond of her; saint vincent gentles her, and shows her that there is a softness in masculinity that asughara runs away from lightning fast.

and yes, even asughara and ada, who couldn’t start off more different -- the one very sexual, powerful, and confident, and the other chaste and meek and unsure -- start being unable to tell where the one ends and the other begins.

thematically, this book explores SO much.

we have different religions interweaving: the odinani, the religious practices and beliefs of the igbo people of nigeria, and christianity, the western faith that comes from ada’s mother. there’s multiple spirits and personalities interlocking constantly, clashing and raging, and even if they eventually start to overlap in certain ways none of them is going down without a fight.

and at the center of it all is ada, going with the flow and trying to make sense of it all in an unsettling world. being reborn again and again and again, often using physical changes to mark a mental change (cutting her hair, changing her body). just like the ogbanje inside of her reincarnate again and again across time.

freshwater challenges a lot of assumptions stemming from western psychology.

it challenges perceptions of gender identity, of mental illness, and what we truly consider madness or sanity. and in doing so, it goes deep into several heavy, oftentimes traumatic, experiences: self-harm, suicide, sexual assault, disordered eating, multiple personalities, and gender dysphoria / euphoria.

and in challenging those assumptions, freshwater shifts the lens from the clinical all the way over to the personal, the cultural, and the spiritual.

i probably find this to be the hardest part of the novel to discuss, mostly because i can see both where this book can make its readers feel uncomfortable, but also where it can be one of the greatest sources of joy and understanding.

part of that is my own inability to fully shift that lens. even though i’m completely aware of how psychology is lacking in many aspects, i’m still a psychologist and sometimes can’t help but fall back into gear. plus, i have some baggage of my own.

psychology is a tricky field because even though it deals with biological realities, it also deals with the interpretation of those realities and that results in our perceptions of mental health and illness. and those can vary wildly according to paradigm, bias, worldview, and time.

everything taken together, some aspects of the novel i find difficult to parse with my own views and ideas, but that doesn’t matter when taking into account just how powerful and important this book is. plus, different personal experiences can co-exist and aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. this book opens discussion and stimulates a different way of viewing the world around us.

and in doing so, its perspective is enriching and enlightening, especially in the conscious choice to decenter the medical terms we usually throw around to describe these topics.

i would highly recommend reading this guardian interview with emezi, in which they talk about the autobiographical aspects of freshwater, as well as how it employs a non-human center. there’s also this essay by emezi themself, in which they discuss their gender transition and how it relates to them being ogbanje.

in conclusion, this is an incredibly beautifully written book that provides a unique perspective on a very unique individual, showcasing humanity through the eyes of very non-human beings. we see much of igbo culture, spirituality, and proverbs.

though not always easy or comfortable to read, it is important to read, and i do feel it touched me in a way not many books have. 100% recommended if its premise speaks to you.

4.0 stars.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,113 reviews8,043 followers
February 9, 2022
Somehow both cerebral and visceral, balancing the spiritual and the physical duality of human existence. Awkwaeke Emezi's debut novel is a powerhouse novel that is hard to define.

The story follows Ada, a girl born with 'one foot on the other side' a.k.a. with a strong spiritual awareness. This is because she is born as an embodied spirit, and not just of one spiritual entity but many. Throughout her life, Ada is inhabited and overtaken by these entities with differing motivations. They use her corporeal form to try and return to their 'brothersisters' and mother, the goddess Ala.

With elements mirroring the author's own identity as an ogbanje ('an evil spirit that would deliberately plague a family with misfortune), Freshwater reckons with what it truly means to live in a human body. In disorienting but stunning prose, Emezi tackles heavy subject matter as if they were a seasoned professional.

It's quite a remarkable debut. I usually try and go into novels knowing only enough to find my footing, but I think my reading experience in the first 1/4 or so would have been elevated with a bit more context about ogbanje and the general premise of the book. I was quite confused until it sort of clicked at the end of part one.

Nonetheless, this is a novel with staying power. It's the kind of novel that compels me to seek out other reviews and criticism of it, to understand the historical and cultural context, and to, of course, read more of Emezi's work (I did read and enjoy The Death of Vivek Oji already).

Trigger warnings for rape and self-harm.
Profile Image for Maddie.
118 reviews47 followers
April 20, 2019

Everything about Freshwater is entracing: the beautiful, strong and evocative writing, the visceral voice of the characters and the deep sense of “strangeness” (not in a odd way, but in a way that there is not many books like it) make the reading of it an experience that cannot be compared nor categorized fully. It sits somewhere between the realm of reality and the realm of the fantastic, I felt like it transported me to a limbo of uncertainty and guided me to a place I have never been before.

Awkaeke Emezi charges her prose and her story with a beautiful lyricism that evoques aspects of Igbo mythology and blends everything we know in it: I felt the threads of the fantastical and the beautiful weaved into this story and the fact that it is charged with biographical aspects only makes it stronger (the author identifies as a Ọgbanje, a mythological figure of Igbo mythology, a person that carries multitudes of identities inside of them -- in modern terms, they identify as a non-binary trans person). However, all of it are simple terms to abide to everyone else in the world since the author, like her character, is beyond categorization, impossible to be one single thing when she’s multiple.

The story is of Ada, a girl that was prayed for by her father and who was born with Ọgbanje inside her head (evil spirits that plague a family with misfortune), because the gods forgot to close the gates (according to traditional Igbo beliefs, children inside their mother’s wombs are open to the spirit world but after birth, the gate separating the temporal and spirit worlds shuts so you don’t go crazy.)
“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.”

So we know that “the Ada” (as the narrative “We” voice of the Ọgbanje refers to their vessel, their human body) is doomed to go mad and die. Indeed, her life is a downhill of imposed havoc (by the human people around her and the spirits within) but also of self-destruction, going through unprotected sex, excessive drinking, abusive relationships, disordered eating and self-harm. Each traumatic experience awakens some of the dorment spirits inside of her, who take over her body and do with it as they please, a twisted excuse to “protect” her. It is these beings that narrate the story to us, either collectively in a voice of chorus (“We”) or individually, as they manage to take hold of the body (Asughara and Saint Vincent).
“If we had been asked to take a piece of chalk and draw where she stops and where we start, it would have been hard.”

Occasionally, we heard from Ada herself, find certain aspects of her personality crawling beneath the spirit’s one. However, she admits:
“I don’t even have the mouth to tell this story. I’m so tired most of the time. Besides, whatever they will say will be the truest version of it, since they are the truest version of me.”

There are many ways one can read and interpret Freshwater: as a coming of age story, what with all the obstacles young women face in their transition into adulthood (questioning our identity is something that is almost paramount to those youthful years, bad decisions and bad experiences shaping us into the adults we will become. Ada struggles with her understanding of the world, her grief-stricken upbringing, her faith (which I found particularly interesting: the discussion of christianity and the parallels to Igbo mythology; the worshipping of an image that does not seem to care about us; the growing out of it);
“Poor thing, I thought, to be so in love with this christ. Why disturb herself with him if it was giving her so much pain?”

and it is also true that, in those years, we hardly feel like a whole person, instead a collection of very different people, trying on personalities to see which fits better, which sticks in the end.

Or we can read it as an indigenous folk tale, an introduction to Igbo mythology and the intricacies of their magical elements in a modern setting. There is magicality in Emezi’s writing that injects a grim existence with weaves of blood and gold -- such is the nature of the Gods. The central theme that runs through the entire story is that of identity. A body is usually single but Ada is multiple, and so she could never be just one thing.
“The Ada felt like a trickster, which felt right. She could move between boy and girl, which was a freedom, for her and for us. (...)”

In the end, I believe Freshwater is about acceptance: of the body and of the mind, embracing the reality of who we are, the demons in our heads as a way to keep us sane. It is a powerful debut that establishes Emezi as an author to watch and a worthy contender in the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Profile Image for elisa.
187 reviews1,180 followers
July 13, 2022
allow us a moment to explain a few things.

specifically, 240 pages of explanation. yes, there is a lot of that here. too much for me, i think. not nearly enough character interaction or genuine scene-writing.

i was so immediately and viscerally enthralled with akwaeke emezi's prose that almost nothing could convince me that this book wouldn't be an immediate five stars upon completion. but this feeling really only lasted me the first 10% of this novel. the momentum of such a beautiful beginning, with expansive exposition and incisively sinister ambience, faded very fast. if you're a die-hard emezi fan, maybe don't continue reading past this point, because i have a lot to unpack in the way of what didn't work in freshwater for me, personally.

i couldn't (and still can't) find a satisfactory way (or angle) from which to read this book. initially, i assumed i was in for something dark and literary, but my hopes were quickly dashed when ada grew older and her character's sole conflict began to revolve around bad sex with worse men (whose presence on the page was so thin as to wisp immediately and unforgivingly away). you can't read freshwater for the fatty plot, because there isn't much to chew on; large questions raised by the worldbuilding are left curiously unaddressed, so that the narrative is being alternately carried forward by either large swaths of ambiguity (why does this work the way that it does? what are the god's true motives? capabilities? what does their home look like? what is their ultimate purpose? their limits? etc.) or time-lapse narration so poor it undercuts any kind of emotional punch certain reveals might have otherwise carried.

you can't read freshwater as a character study, either, because none of the people that populate this book—not even the central gods occupying ada's body—have enough dimension to feel even slightly believable. from chapter four onward, emezi seems to lose their grip on the world they've constructed and what rushes in to fill the void is confusing, chaotic, and ultimately (and deeply) unsatisfying.

early on i was able to identify why i had such a negative reaction to the turn the narrative had taken, though i understand i should tread lightly (or just sensitively) when offering criticism of certain plot choices because it seems that on some level this book is inspired by real life events in the author’s life?

what it boils down to for me is this: men. everything in this world seems to revolve around them. sex with them. falling in love with them. their drugs. their cheating. their violence. their sexual abuse. their tenderness. their touches. their greed. their angst. non-men and their desires, their motivations, their angst, seem to pale in comparison, disregarded or so deeply ensnared in the former that there's no sense of relief or separation from which to build identities (or any identity at all).

so this is the part in the review where i write a little disclaimer for anyone reading: this is largely a matter of personal taste, and i acknowledge that it's not emezi's fault that i personally don't like reading about the many and varied ways that cis men wreak violence through sex, because that trauma is real and terrifying and it can be hard to understand the external/internal forces that sidle us with these unhealthy relationships seemingly on repeat. books/authors don't necessarily owe us anything, particularly where a reader's personal preferences are concerned. thus, a lot of my criticism is likely unfair.

but oh my fucking god, i am so sick of being let down by narratives that DO NOT CENTRALLY FOLLOW MEN because EVEN STILL THE NARRATIVE CAN'T HELP BUT PAN OVER TO THE SHITTY DUDES SITTING ON THE SIDELINES.

like, yes! novels often need conflict to sustain them! but i'm sick of reading about women and their toxic dysfunctional codependent relationships with cishet men (particularly when there is no relief from this narrative fixture). tired of it! bored! it's been done to death! we've seen enough! we don't need to see anymore!


i would have loved more of the strange relationship with blood/self-harm/broken glass. food/eating. occupying physical space. a body's mental fortitude or lack thereof. exploring the marble room in ada's mind. exploring the fluctuations of a god's "(meta)physical" form and how that is altered/changed by the body they were forcibly shoved inside.


usually i can put up with "WOMAN HAS UNHEALTHY RELATIONSHIP WITH SEX" narratives (because yes they are real and true and painful) when the absolute agony of shitty male characters is offset by interesting female characters/dynamics and family angst and ANYTHING ELSE TO PICK UP THE SLACK. but ada's family fades to the background of freshwater almost immediately. not enough saachi (literally WHY WASN'T THERE MORE SAACHI IN THIS AAAAAHHHH). next to no añuli. malena felt ephemeral.


in terms of more objective criticism, i would like to ask what is up with the novel's tendency to offhandedly throw in tiny mentions of giant reveals with seemingly no explanation or genuine plotting:

After she tried to kill me and failed, Ada gave up.

*through tears* emezi stop. please stop. please abandon the dramatic foreshadowing at every turn. i don't want to find out about huge, cataclysmic, life-altering plot points this way. i want to find out because you have thrown me into the plot point without the neat little blurb/prelude. you are undercutting so much tension and pacing by continuously tossing us these preemptive narration techniques. not only do they blunt the impact of the actual plot events, they are needlessly confusing and raise more questions than they answer?

sometimes the compulsion to overexplain/describe things that have happened instead of launching into the real-time event does not serve a narrative except stylistically. that is the case in freshwater. too many stylistic detours. too much overexplaining. too much description. too much time-lapse narration. barely any real-time events to latch onto and so little dialogue. i understand that the novel is supposed to be nonchronological, but this method of execution doesn't feel at all neat or helpful.

also asụghara and ada's relationship is so completely hot and cold with so little actual development that one moment the god will go I WANT TO KILL YOU AND DESTROY YOU! I WANT YOU DIED!!!!!!!!!!! #SCENE #EMO #HATRED and then the next it's [Ada] sobbed against the marble and my heart broke. NO. I NEED YOU TO DO THE ACTUAL WORK TO DEVELOP A DYNAMIC BETWEEN THESE TWO. THE PROBLEM IS THAT ASỤGHARA AS A CHARACTER IS DRIVEN BY ONLY HER SEX ADDICTION AND ADA'S CHARACTER DEPTH IS DROWNED AS A RESULT, BECAUSE SHE'S A PASSENGER IN HER BODY AND HAS TO CARRY OUT ALL OF ASỤGHARA'S DESIRES. literally cucking your own mc's development with your other mc 😭😭😭😭😭😭

like. you're trying to convince me that the god asụghara wants pain and destruction and to feed on men because she hates humans. on the surface, yes, i can get behind this 100%. but that becomes the reason why she asks men to slap her around in bed????? it just feels like one of the most casual and commonplace forms of oppression is being dressed up as magical and dark and driven by roiling godhood/unrest. it's not believable. it's not compelling. it is not magical or imaginative or otherworldly to seek out men who like to hurt women so they can hurt you/your host. there's nothing new or inventive about giving one of your centermost gods (GODS!!!!!!) this incredibly human journey that we see in every existing corner of the world. more interesting imo would have been god(s) and a human host whose respective approaches to sex/desire/love become clear foils as the narrative progresses, rather than running together until it's unclear what belongs to who. more clear demarcations between god and human!!!!!! because right now i'm not sure what about asụghara is at all divine or powerful other than a bit of bodily control over ada 😭

that this oppression seems to have seeped into even the gated spiritual corners of freshwater is confounding to me and i still don't know if that was an intentional narrative choice? if i’m maybe even critiquing from a place of large cultural gaps re: the mythology/religions emezi is writing about/towards? if perhaps they wanted to take a very human kind of trauma and find or provide personal catharsis/relief from it by assigning it to some of the most powerful beings in this world, so it seems less individual and more collective? there doesn't seem to be a point to this motive and there's no sense of separation between what the gods want and what ada is doing because she's been groomed/compelled/abused into it, so the character development and characterization in general here is super muddled.

emezi hive please tell me their oeuvre includes a book that sounds more up my alley, because i really clicked with the prose/ambience and hated absolutely everything else. where is the full-bodied plot? where are the convincing characters? where are there far less shitty men written about in the most banal, boring way possible?????? PLS LET ME KNOW
Profile Image for julieta.
1,116 reviews18.1k followers
April 12, 2022
The first thing I have to say is how beautiful it is to discover a truly original writer, her story goes from fiction to pure magic. That is what words can do. I keep wondering if this story is about how people are percieved, and about how depending on how you look at the exterior, you miss out on all the interior things, gods maybe? that may live in a person (or is it madness?). Another question I take with me is, are they driving her mad, or are they protecting her? It felt like a little bit of both. But to see all this unfold in such a beautiful language, with these words, images, the real and the surreal, the search of truth in every form, is an amazing and wonderful experience, and that is what I can say about this book, it is an experience.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,039 followers
March 16, 2018
I was pulled in to this story (narrated by the author) of Ada, who is a gift from the (plural) Igbo serpent god to her parents for praying the right way. But because they were the child, the god(s) own her, and are always with her. There is a disturbing description of it at the beginning where they go inside the lining of her uterus, among other places. During a traumatic event, they take hold of Ada's body and then have the ability to completely take over when they want or need to. If she has sex with anyone, it is never her, always them.

Halfway through listening to this novel, I encountered this article, which explained to me how this novel is more autobiographical than I would have imagined. The author discusses being ogbanje and also genderqueer, how the one informs the other, how they have modified their body to fit more how they feel. And Ada goes through this as well, except it feels like greater discomfort from the spirits than from Ada. When she hits puberty, they are uncomfortable at how they can't fully identify or control the humanity that comes into being. Ada also pursues surgical answers, and struggles with suicide along the way.

It is worth the read, worth the experience, the writing is beautiful while also being disturbing. The gods in Ada interact with other gods, like "Yeshua" and "Allah," and "Yeshua" is often hanging around waiting for Ada to come back to him. He even reaches out to the serpent gods in friendship. The mother is an important character who is actually shut out from Ada's life at one point, by the gods.

Typically these gods are considered spirits, but of course... they might not see themselves that way. I enjoyed how the author wrote from their perspective, and it is a bit trippy.
Profile Image for David.
590 reviews124 followers
November 2, 2020
Let's begin with those things that can and should be celebrated. Emezi's are interesting voices arising from a unique body with a very unusual view of the world. Given the recent explosion of debut authors writing alternative forms of fiction, that is really saying something. And it takes a tremendous amount of courage and self-sacrifice to put something as autobiographical and confrontational as "Freshwater" before the public, particularly when you know it will serve as your irrevocable first impression. So Bravi to them.

It is also cause for happiness when a non-White, non-conformist, non-Americocentric novel from an unestablished author garners the attention of a mainstream publisher and major prize committees. In fact it's so wonderful that I'll give that sentiment a paragraph of its own.

The writers who have influenced Emezi thus far seem quite apparent: Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Binyavanga Wainaina, and Toni Morrison were already familiar to me; Tananarive Due, Daniel Jose Older, N.K. Jemisin, and Nnedi Okorafor were not. On the basis of this book I would venture to say that Emezi strove for the power and fluency of the former group and delivered the plot elements, themes, and tones of the latter. As I've not read any stories from the spiritualist-fantasy set mentioned - only the synopses of their novels and a few dozen reader reviews - I'm in no position to say just how helpful their own creative talents were to this new writer, but Emezi does seem to have borrowed quite heavily from them. Quite.

My problems with this novel had nothing to do with its form or subject matter being unfamiliar, challenging, unpleasant, or "liminal". What I found frustrating was that these characteristics are incorporated erratically. Even more bothersome, I feel they are invoked in order to explain away awkward phrasing, overwrought prose, inconsistencies of character, contradictions in storyline, and other weaknesses of craft. Liminality, and a vigorous exploration of the transitional cusps of "in-beween" time-spaces, certainly allows for broad artisitic license. That much I understand. In the case of "Freshwater", I was committed to scaling that wall but found myself having to trust a climbing instructor who provided more exuberance than skill.

It seems only fair to offer one example for each of my judgments. (I wish I could tell you that I had to look hard for them.)

Awkward phrasing: "I was the wildness under the skin, the skin into a weapon, the weapon over the flesh." (Wait...what?)

Overwrought prose: "Think of her when the moon is rich, flatulent, bursting with pus and light, repugnant with strength." (Must I?)

Inconsistencies of character: "She was older now, less brutal but still efficient." ("She" being Asughara, an Igbo spirit "older even than Yshwa", who we are told is now observably aged after only 5 years occupying the Ada. Please...)

Contradictions in the storyline: "No one would ever touch her again." (This on page 66, not even a third of the way into a book that's all about Ada being touched and traumatized.)

Other weaknesses of craft: "I calculated that if one tablet of the cyclobenzaprine prescribed for Ada's sciatica could knock her out for thirteen hours, then a whole bottle of them would easily bring her home." So...now Ada has such debilitating sciatica she needs Flexeril. There has been zero indication that her wild copulations and dance-floor gyrations cause her any discomfort whatsoever. Furthermore, we'll hear no more about this condition after that one page. How terribly convenient to introduce sudden-onset sciatica when one wants one's main character(s) to overdose on prescription drugs. How incredible as well.

In the end it was simply too many ingredients mixed into too small a bowl by too new a chef. We're given non-binary sexuality, body dysphoria, Igbo spiritualism and ogbanje possession, depression, suicidality and self-harm, Multiple Personality Disorder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, the African experience in America, inter-racial relationships, the Caribbean diaspora, child abuse, White privilege, incest, drug use, nymphomania, and (I am certain) other topics which currently escape me.

One of the unifying themes is best stated by Emezi themselves: "This is what happens when you act as if a human can hold godmatter without curdling." Well, I suppose that depends upon your understanding of "godmatter". Such facile, grand, sweeping pronouncements abound in "Freshwater". They appear to have been mother's milk to some but, in all honesty, they spoiled my experience, curdling too quickly too often.

2.5 stars
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Michelle.
651 reviews184 followers
February 13, 2018
Freshwater is the semi-autobiographical account of a young woman suffering from multiple personality disorder after a traumatic event. Steeped in Igbo tradition the main character Ada lives a life straddling two worlds. As the daughter of the serpent goddess Ala, she is born with “one foot on the other side” occupying the liminal spaces between the spirit realm and the flesh. What is the cause of her fractured self? Is she possessed or is she mad? What is reality? Can we accept both of these as plausible explanations?

In this rich and mystical novel Emezi explores self-identity, human frailty, sacrifice and resurrection. Freshwater is such an innovative work, the majority of which is narrated by the spirits that inhabit Ada. It is not often that you come across a book that is written so eloquently, that touches your soul in the deep parts and leaves you breathless. This is why we read books.

I would like to thank Grove Atlantic Press and Akwaeke Emezi for an advanced reader’s edition of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Darkowaa.
163 reviews373 followers
June 8, 2018
!!! https://africanbookaddict.com/2018/02...

If I had known this book was as evil, dark and sinful as it was, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to read it. But now that I’ve marinated the story in my mind for a while, I can confidently declare that Freshwater is so much more than it’s insane level of lust and blasphemy. Freshwater is a dark, layered tale based in and out of the spiritual realm, which focuses on how past traumas deeply affect one’s well-being and mental health... (the FULL review is on the book blog - link above)
Profile Image for Books with Brittany.
646 reviews3,106 followers
August 13, 2021
Wow. Just wow.
Well this one made my emotions spiral. Take care and go in with caution.
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