Book Review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

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, am 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.

In a powerful and revealing look at a captivating facet of Nigerian culture, Akwaeke Emezi explores the depths of mental illness and spirituality in her debut novel, Freshwater. Ada is born with a unique duality—a physical body and a human psyche that is inhabited by spiritual beings which affect her in myriad ways. As the story progresses we come to learn the Igbo term for this experience, ọgbanje, which alludes to an Earthly presence inhabited by a(n) evil spirit(s) whose survival is only possible though a type of cyclical spiritual rebirth. Narrated by the very beings that inhabit her, Ada’s struggles are slowly revealed through the eyes within her eyes.

We’ve wondered in the years since then what she would have been without us, if she would have still gone mad. What if we had stayed asleep? What if she has remained locked in those years where she belonged to herself? Look at her, whirling around the compound wearing batik shorts and a cotton shirt, her long black hair braided into two arcs fastened with colored bands, her teeth gleaming and one slipper broken. Like a heaving sun. The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.

As Ada grows, we see the toll such a life takes upon her and we watch as this unparalleled torment slowly consumes her. As she battles the newness of life as a Nigerian in America, along with the basic hurdles of life as a college student, we are soon to discover the boundless ability of her mind to both shelter and distress her self.

He pulled on a pair of shorts as she sat in the cheap Wal-Mart sheets, knowledge trickling like warm urine into her head, traveling down to her chilled hands. The words swirled in nausea around her. Birth control pills, because this boy, the boy with the doe eyes and the sad skin, had released clouds into her. But she couldn’t remember any of it and she couldn’t remember saying yes because she couldn’t remember being asked.

Following this trauma, a new being is released within Ada, seemingly to protect her from future suffering. What follows is a desperate spiraling into madness that threatens the existence of our protagonist, and as as result our narrators, shedding light on the very nature of ọgbanje and the more common battles waged inside the tormented mind.

Drawn from parts of their own personal life, Akwaeke Emezi has penned a devastating and engrossing debut that challenges the status quo and begs another look at identity and the resilience of the human mind.

I don’t even have the mouth to tell you 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. It’s a strange thing to say, I know, considering that they made me mad. But I am not entirely opposed to madness, not what it comes with this kind of clarity. The world in my head had been far more real than the one outside—maybe that’s the exact definition of madness, come to think of it. It’s all a secret I’ve had to keep, but no longer, not since you’re reading this. And it should all make sense; I didn’t want to be alone, so I chose them. In many ways, you see, I am not even real.


A review copy of this title was provided by Grove Atlantic


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