Review: “Freshwater” by Akwaeke Emezi


Release Date: August 15, 2017
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Genre: Literary, Magical Realism


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.” (via Goodreads)


My Thoughts

Freshwater-coverTake, for example, cutting. From a viewpoint of Ada experiencing mental health crises, her acts are self-harm. She deliberately causes herself pain by cutting her arms and legs. This behavior is often used as a way of establishing control over the uncontrollable or internally managing pain inflicted by external sources. It’s a coping mechanism to dull intense emotional pain and stress (I say all that only as someone who has known several people who were/are cutters and the things they’ve relayed to me, not from personal experience). Given the terrible things Ada goes through, self-harm isn’t an unexpected reaction. Yet when viewed from Ada’s culture, cutting becomes an act of sacrifice to the gods inhabiting her body: “We had chosen the currency the Ada would pay us with back on the tar of Okigwe Road, in the maw of Añuli’s leg, and she paid it quickly. Once there was blood, we subsided, temporarily sated…we battered against the Ada’s marble mind until she fed us and that thick red offering sounded almost like our mother—slowly, slowly, nwere nwayọ, take it slowly.”

Is Ada really inhabited by gods or are we witnessing mental illness via an unreliable narrator? Could it be both experiences layered on top of each other like parallel universes? Deciding if Ada’s story is reality or imagination—or if Freshwater itself plays more toward fantasy or fiction—misses the point. The whole book is liminal space upon liminal space, a threshold between the past and the future, truth and lies. The narrative is as non-traditional as it is non-linear; Emezi and Ada are not beholden to Western rules and systems. Even the very narrative structure plays into this. Although the story is about Ada, she only rarely narrates. Most of the chapters are first person POV of the ọgbanje or one of her alters as they endure living in and through Ada. They shift her context and physical body as they grow, learn, and take control. The question of mental illness or gods detracts from the truth of her lived experiences…

To read the rest of my review of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, head over to

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.

Thanks to Grove Atlantic for sending me a review copy.

Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or borrow it from your public library.

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