Book Title: Freshwater
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Reviewer: Ivy Nyayieka
Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is a lyrical and poetic book that explores a tumultuous relationship between the body of the protagonist Ada and the gods that possess her.
Even though I worried that I would not understand it when I started reading, it is the kind of book which, if you are just a little patient, teaches you how to read it.
Like Jamaica Kincaid’s autobiography of my Mother, the book starts from Ada’s birth. It is a treat to have the voice of a newborn (even though they are actually gods that have been on earth before) narrate the world for the first time.
A child’s eye lends itself perfectly to strange and surprising descriptions of ordinary things.
This coupled with Emezi’s literary prowess gives birth to sentences such as the following: “She ate (the mangoes) all the way from their skins through their wet flesh to her teeth scraping like dry bone against the seeds.”
The omnipresent distinction between the Ada’s body and spirit is complex but the author manoeuvres it expertly. This feature of the book is an ideal vehicle for the author to explore the fluidity of gender identities, since the gender of the gods that form Ada’s spiritual identity differs. It is also interesting to have her spiritual identity narrate her relationship with matters that centre the body such as drug abuse, eating disorders and sex addiction.
The way the author navigates mental health as a theme is more reason to laud her writing. Ada seems to struggle, for instance, with post traumatic stress disorder and possibly dissociative identity disorder.
However, rather than using these opaque medical terms, the author presents the protagonist’s experiences in a way that makes them comprehensible even to readers who would be unfamiliar with the subject and calls on their empathy. For readers with similar struggles, this book may help in reducing the resultant sense of isolation.
If I could change anything about the book, it would be that I would have liked Ada to engage with the people she hurt. I understand that the gods that possessed her were to blame for those moments of cruelty.
However, I wished that even if there were no consequences, Ada should have at least communicated with those people. Like for many contemporary authors, Emezi’s protagonist grows into a better person in the book but does not face the effect of her past actions on the people around her in a significant way.
Fans of books such as Yvonne Owuor’s Dust and Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go will enjoy this short book’s poetic cadence. I would vouch for the book wholeheartedly, but because I do not want you to blame me for sinking about Sh2,000, I would encourage you to read an excerpt, see if it is something you would enjoy, then buy it. I will say, though, that everybody I have met who has read it loves it.