Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

freshwaterSince I finished this book, I’ve been pondering how possibly to review it, because this is one of those novels that defies a review. I don’t even know where to start. I can’t say I liked it, or especially enjoyed reading it, but I respected it. This is what I keep coming back to: as a piece of art, a form of storytelling, an exploration of identity, an experiment in for–I am amazed and awed by what Emezi accomplished with Freshwater. But reading it was such a strange, dark, dream-like, and confusing experience that, upon finishing it, I felt dazed, unsure of what had just happened, how I should feel about it, or what it meant. Perhaps this was Emezi’s intention.

It’s hard to summarize the plot without giving anything away. It’s the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman, who is born “with one foot on the other side.” Many selves live within her, and as she grows up and comes of age, these selves begin to take over, pushing Ada more and more into the background of her own mind. While at college in America, a traumatic event causes these selves to take over in a more profound way, forever altering Ada’s life. The narration switches between POVs, jumping from a collective we (all of Ada’s various selves), to one of the most prominent selves, Asụghara, to Ada herself.

I’ve been thinking about this book for days now, trying to figure out how I felt about it. I did not enjoy reading it. It deals with dark material–sexual assault, rape, internalized trauma, self-harm, suicidal ideation, violence. But it was also so strange, and utilized such a fiercely unique narrative structure, that it often felt like the story was being told to me through a shadowy haze. It almost felt like being drunk. I couldn’t quite understand exactly what was going on. The first third of the book, especially, felt more like a fable than a story.

Things crystalized and became somewhat clearer when Asụghara took over the narration, and the sections told from her POV and Ada’s POV were the ones that felt the most real to me, the easiest to relate to. But still, when I finished the book, my first reaction was: what the hell just happened?

I think the reason it was so hard for me to connect with this novel was that I could not figure out what was real and what wasn’t–which was, perhaps, the point. It deals with Nigerian spirituality and  mythology, about which I know little. The beings inside Ada are gods (at least, this is how they see themselves). Is the book realistic fiction, about a woman with a mental illness? Is it fabulist, in the traditional of magical realism? Is it an exploration of spirituality and religion, part-real, part-magic? Are Ada’s selves purely metaphor or purely magic? The answer is: I have no idea.

As an exploration of identity, Freshwater is successful. It was fascinating to read a story both from Ada’s POV and the POV of those selves within her. Who are we, and who are any of us to judge another person’s reality, Emezi seems to be asking. Are we defined by what’s inside us, what we believe, or how the world sees us? The book does a brilliant job of wrestling with these questions, constantly exposing all the nuances of how identities shift and morph over time. It’s also a book about trauma, and how people do and do not survive traumatic experiences. Ada’s life is marked by trauma, and her experience of self is inextricably linked to that trauma.

Freshwater, in my opinion, is a brilliant piece of art. The more I think about it, the more I respect it. It can be read in so many ways, and this ambiguity is both what makes it so powerful, and what, for me, made it hard to read. At times it felt more like a thought experiment than a novel. I felt for Ada–it was impossible not to–but I never really sank into her world. It’s a deeply layered book, and I expect every reader will come to different conclusions about it.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about opening myself up to reading many different kinds of books. The books I love best are the ones where I fall head-over-heels into the story, where the characters become so real and beloved that I end up thinking about them for the rest of my life. Freshwater might be that kind of book for some, but for me, it wasn’t. It was the kind of book that tangled me up and got me thinking. I didn’t like it. It did not sink right into my heart. But I am so glad I read it, because, as it continues, slowly, to percolate through my thoughts, I can feel it expanding me and my understanding of the world.

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