Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Updated: 5 days ago

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (Faber & Faber, 2018)

As someone who's nonbinary, I'm always on the look out for nonbinary writers to share with you all and just occasionally I come across a real find or someone close to me does so for me.

I was delighted to encounter the work of Akwaeke Emezi, an Igbo/Tamil writer, for the first time when my dad sent a book token for Christmas during lockdown. Jim spent hours searching for nonbinary writers to spend the token on online as a surprise so that I would have actual physical gifts to open. Freshwater was one of the books I unwrapped on Christmas morning.

Freshwater is Akwaeke Emezi's debut novel, and it was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in fiction.

I enjoyed Freshwater immensely, and it was an incredibly well written portrait of serious mental illness. It addresses self-harm, personality disorder and attempted suicide, so I am placing an advisory trigger warning here at the beginning of this review for any reader who thinks that they might be adversely affected by these issues, which appear throughout the book and are an integral part of its plot.

The cover of Freshwater be Akwaeke Emezi shows a two-headed snake.
Freshwater be Akwaeke Emezi

We are three spirits inserted into Ada when she was still in her mother's womb. They are later joined by Asughara, Yshwa and Saint Vincent. They vie for control of Ada's mind and body, and take every advantage of external problems such as the departure of Ada's mother Saachi and a serious injury sustained by her younger sister Anuli. As a result, Ada's childhood in small-town Nigeria is utterly miserable, full of terrors and serious emotional instability.

When she is sixteen, Ada goes to college in America. She becomes promiscuous and engages in self-harm as the spirits inside her mind take over more and more control of her body. Her sense of identity fractures after her marriage fails, and she is conflicted about whether to consider them her protectors or the source of all her problems.

Ada's voice is only very occasionally the point of view in this novel, so most of the story belongs to We, who speak jointly, and Asughara, who has her own distinct voice. Akwaeke Emezi draws upon their Igbo heritage to present an African perspective on mental illness and the development of multiple personality disorder in their young heroine, which leans more towards explaining the multiple identities as parasitic spirits dwelling within their host.

These spirits are presented for most of Freshwater as vindictive and spiteful, tormenting Ada for their own amusement and enjoying the ability to inhabit a human body. For most of the novel, serious mental illness is therefore suggested to be something that has a cause external to the sufferer. I was fascinated by this approach, which is very different to how western psychiatry considers mental illness.

Freshwater is broadly chronological, moving through Ada's childhood to young adulthood in America and then into her twenties when she marries. Later on, she explores other gender identities and sexual orientations, which enable her to become more empowered and to feel more in control of her life. It is at that point that the reader is allowed to hear Ada's voice more often. The latter portions of the novel were more positive in that regard, and the story was satisfying by the end. The earlier sections were very gruelling but also incredibly moving. It didn't pull any punches.

Freshwater was a wonderfully well-written debut novel that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Thank you so much for reading this Monday Musing review of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi from John C Adams Reviews. Please feel free to share your thoughts on any literary fiction you've enjoyed and would recommend to others in the comments section below. My next post is for Friday Frighteners. I'll see you then!

You can buy Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi as an e-book here or as an audiobook here. You can subscribe to my blog here.

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of The Years by Virginia Woolf here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of Spy in the House of Love by Anais Nin here.

If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald here.

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