Thursday, May 3, 2018

Book Review: Freshwater

Ada is born to a Nigerian (Igbo) father and Tamil mother. 'A fat baby, with thick black hair... [who] screamed a lot'. But unbeknownst to her parents, Ada is no normal baby, but a child 'with a foot on the other side'; an 'Ọgbanje' and 'daughter of Ala', as she is described by Akwaeke Emezi, the author. Ada is a manifestation of what happens when spirits occupy a body. However, the spirits, referred to as 'We', lie dormant in Ada's body until later in life.

Whilst reading Freshwater, there were a few words I had to become acquainted with. By picking my husband's brain and doing a quick Google search, I found that an gbange is a spirit that taunts a family by occupying a child's body, causing her to die and be born again, over and over. Ala is a female deity of earth, morality, fertility, and creativity. So it's clear Ada is much more than a mere human. 

The story moves from Nigeria to America where Ada lives as a student. A traumatic episode of sexual assault finally unleashes these spirits, and this is when the full force of Ada's 'possession' begins. Like a glass that shatters into a million pieces, this painful experience shatters Ada into many versions of herself. The spirits are powerful and unforgiving, but the most dominant and assertive of them is Asghara - a highly sexualised being who takes control of Ada's body and is, in fact, the author of Ada's many violent, sexual encounters.
Ada must learn to accept her complex reality, or realities, and gain control of these spirits before they completely destroy her.
Freshwater is a complex novel, which unites and also separates the themes of spirituality, mental health, and identity. There are also undertones of sex, violence, and heartbreak. There is no doubt that Emezi is a talented writer, and for her debut novel she definitely deserves applause. The writing is enigmatic and mystical. Powerful descriptions are made throughout to portray the existence of the spirits. Freshwater is an enchanting novel which requires the reader to let go of all inhibitions and reach into the furthest corner of his or her mind. 

Its narration is distributed between 'We' (the many spirits), Ada and of course Asghara, but the latter tells most of the story. I think this style of narration is a mighty feat to achieve especially if the continuity of the story can be maintained, and this is something Emezi does very well. However, despite all of Freshwater's virtues, I struggled to finish it and I took a lot longer than anticipated to get to the end.

Why I found it difficult to read Freshwater
Ada's relationship with her spirits (with whom she had actual conversations) highlighted the theme of mental illness, and I can only commend the author for daring to speak about something that is considered taboo in most African cultures. However in Freshwater, this is a double-edged sword,  and the other side is spirit possession, therefore the Christian in me just would not allow me to enjoy the text fully. (Sorry just how I felt.) These spirits had an unquenchable thirst for blood thus leading Ada to cut herself. They were also the cause of many of Ada's other destructive habits such as her addiction to violent sex with all kinds of men including married men and her friend's teenage brothers (whose family kindly took her in when she had nowhere to stay!) Ada denied herself food, pushed her mother away and attempted suicide. For me, these were difficult to ingest. (This is where I add my disclaimer. I am NOT saying that people with mental health issues are demon possessed, I am simply speaking in the context of this novel, mmmkay?)

The spiritual theme lends itself to a lot of figurative writing which I struggled to wrap my head around . I am a very visual thinker and like to play out scenes in my head like a movie whilst I read. But this kind of writing does not allow that. Also, Ada's torment led her to make so many harmful mutations to her body that I couldn't bring myself to visualise. 
As you might have gathered, Freshwater is for a particular type of reader, but this is by no means to take away from the talent of the author. All in all, I rate it 6/10. I look forward to reading what else Akwaeke has to offer.

Have you read Freshwater yet? If so, what were your experiences with the book? If not, could you see yourself reading it? I'd like to hear from you!



  1. Now this sounds like an interesting book. Hmmm... I haven't read it before and I can't see myself reading it. I'm just not into these spiritual things. Freaks me out!

    1. Lol! I don't blame you sis. I felt some way whilst I was reading it. Anyhow thanks for at least reading the review.

  2. I tried to put in words how I felt reading this book. You just fully described what I felt. I struggled with it as well. However it is a beautifully written book.

    1. I really thought I was the only one! and I expected backlash for this review. But yes, it is comforting to know that someone shares my mixed views


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