Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2018

Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi

I was quite surprised when I came across Freshwater at the library.  I had read about it at the Johannesburg Review of Books and had expected it to be difficult to access as so many books from Africa are.  But it turns out that Emezi is an expat Nigerian and that Freshwater, her debut novel, was published in the US not Nigeria, and it’s been widely reviewed there (see here, and scroll to Books).  So that accounts for its availability in my local library.

Freshwater is, as the JRB review says, inventive, innovative and bold.  It tells the story of Ada’s fractured selves, and these are, disconcertingly, based on the author’s own realities. This may mean that the work is partly autobiographical, and that Ada’s traumatic experiences of Otherness perhaps mirror the author’s own life.  Thinking that this might be so makes reading the book an unsettling experience…

Like Ben Okri’s The Famished World, Freshwater features ogbanje – spirits from Igbo spiritual beliefs, in this case multiple amoral spirits inadvertently stranded in Ada’s body when the gates were left open.  Repeated episodes of sexual abuse bring these spirits to the fore, most notably Asughara who intervenes in Ada’s subsequent sexual ventures at college in America, ostensibly to prevent her being hurt again.  One of the most disconcerting aspects of this novel is the unadulterated contempt for the men she encounters.  It is Asughara’s nature to be cruel and contemptuous, but there are no good men in this novel, not even Ada’s father who disappears into obscurity leaving his wife to take care of the family, (which she mostly does by abandoning the children to work overseas).

However the novel is not about characterisation, and readers looking to ‘connect’ with a character will probably be disappointed.  There is very little about Ada’s family, and the reader learns nothing about how she got to college in the US, what course she’s doing or what career she might anticipate.  There’s a lot about her appearance, her clothes and her hair, and also about the physical appearance and the limitations of the men she meets.  The clarity of these external descriptions serves to emphasise the confusion of Ada’s internal identity and to stress that the beautiful self that is seen by others is not the self that she is trying to negotiate without going mad.

Ada herself narrates only a couple of chapters, the rest being commandeered by the brothersisters who populate her other selves.  They talk about her as both separate from themselves (referring to her as The Ada) but also part of her, and they fight with her and with each other though Aughara is always the dominant aggressive powerful one.  But as Asughara finds out when her attempt to manipulate Ada into suicide fails, all of them are subject to the laws of their spirit mother Ala who will decide when and how Ada will be released from her torment.

In just one chapter, Ada speaks as a young woman trying to get help for mental health issues.  But Asughara sabotages this visit to a therapist, and prevents her ever from returning.  Asughara interferes with medication, claiming to act in Ada’s best interests but also admitting that cruelty is the birthright of the brothersisters and that it was always clear that Ada would go mad.

(As a side issue, the author notes that this being America, Ada’s mother is not able to talk to her doctors because Asughara has denied permission for it.  IMO there’s a kind of insanity in the privacy laws we share with the US, when parents can’t intervene on behalf of a critically ill child whose mental illness has compromised decision-making ability).

The most successful aspect of this novel is to show just how convincing the multiple personalities of dissociative identity disorder can be, not just to the self experiencing them but also to people encountering them.  None of the sleazy young men who sleep with Asughara know that she is not Ada.  The explanation given in the novel is that multiple selves make it possible for different selves to remember different experiences, which means that a traumatic experience can be sectioned off and not remembered except by the self that experienced the trauma. It is a way of managing memories that would otherwise be intolerable.

One other aspect to note is that Ada’s other selves are resolutely Igbo.  They often speak in Igbo, and though they party hard, they perceive the American college world as strangers do.  They are as Other as she is, the difference being that she, being human, tries to fit in, until the ogbanje convince her that only a radical transformation can offer release.

I don’t agree with the reviewer who wrote that

Rooting Ada’s story in Igbo cosmology forces us to further question our paradigm for what causes mental illness and how it manifests. It causes us to question science and reason.

But what Freshwater does do is to make us hope that research and a compassionate health care system can reduce the torment of mental illness wherever it occurs.

Also see Claire’s review at Word by Word. 

Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Title: Freshwater
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2018
ISBN: 9780571347216
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Nice book, how can I read it… I am a Nigerian too


    • Hello Vince, thanks for dropping by. I think it’s available from the big online stores like Amazon and the Book Depository:)


  2. Awaeke Emezi is a good writer


  3. Loved this one. Such an amazing read.


    • It is, isn’t it? There are times when you just don’t want to read on, but it’s so compelling, you have to.


  4. […] Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi #BookReview Nigeria […]


  5. I’m tackling my backlog. I love African fiction though I read very little of it. The spirits in the Nigerian worldview seem very real. The problems you allude to in the Mental Health system arose, I think, from the other extreme – rellos having people committed who just needed a little help – think Eve Langley, or Janet Frame (whom I know less about).


    • You mean you’re reading old posts of mine from June????


      • I set aside the emails linking to posts to read later and I thought I’m on holidays I’d better clear these out before I get busy again (I have a whole separate directory for Tim’s, which are generally pretty long, and used to read them when I was unloading).


        • I do that for local holidays, but I resign myself to missing some when I’m away for a longer while. I mean, it’s not possible to keep up with everything!
          BTW I am enjoying KSP’s Pioneers so far:)


  6. […] Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, see my review […]


  7. […] a chorus of Igbo spirits in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, and Igbo spirits narrate aspects of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi.)  The first time the chorus intervenes to undermine the narrative in The Shadow […]


  8. […] I recognised the author’s name on this remarkable novel when I was at the library collecting something else that I’d reserved… I’d previously read Freshwater. […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: