Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Published by Grove Press on February 13, 2018
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg: 4.00 (as of 2019-05-09)
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.
I finished this after the Women’s Prize shortlist is released and all I can say is: it’s a damn travesty that this book didn’t make the cut. It was initially interesting to see that it was longlisted — Akwaeke Emezi is nonbinary, which the judges were not aware of until after they had decided upon the list. Emezi gave their okay for the book’s inclusion regardless and fans were glad to see it gain further recognition. But for the judges to leave off this masterpiece in favor of the combination they did… I won’t get into it, but it sure doesn’t make any sense.
The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.
I actually received a Netgalley ARC of this in January 2018, which I far too quickly DNFed in a “I’m not sure I Get this, maybe later” scenario. Maybe for the best, since I don’t know that I would have fully appreciated this novel without the growth my literary tastes have experienced over the last year. While I’m still not sure I was able to fully appreciate it — there were doubtless many things I missed — this is one of the most impactful books I have ever read and I’m sure I’ll never forget it.
The boy made Ada a gibbering thing in a corner — this is the truth, but he would never get her again. I had arrived, flesh from flesh, true blood from true blood. I was the wildness under the skin, the skin into a weapon, the weapon over the flesh. I was here. No one would ever touch her again.
Freshwater is an exploration of many things, but at the forefront lie trauma, gender identity, and spirituality. It’s hard to explore the plot too deeply without spoilers, but I’ll say that this is one of the best portrayals of trauma that I’ve ever read. The entire book requires endless trigger warnings and it’s quite an intense experience, but I found it so rewarding. If you’re in the space where you can pick this up, I cannot recommend it enough.
More Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist reviews:
Lost Children Archive
Praise Song for the Butterflies
An American Marriage
My Sister, the Serial Killer
The Silence of the Girls