Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Faber & Faber, November 2018, 229 pp

Faber & Faber, November 2018, 229 pp

“All water is connected. All freshwater comes out of the mouth of a python.” Based on Igbo beliefs and practices rooted in southern Nigeria, Freshwater follows Ada from her childhood to maturity, studying abroad in the US and travelling in Europe. On a purely physical level, Ada’s development is not that different from the trials and tribulations of an average teenager and young adult: first love, alcohol, casual sex, broken hearts. Think of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. But it is the mental, or the metaphysical level, which plays a bigger role in the novel rather than the deceptive surface.

Ada herself narrates only a few short sections. For the most part, the reins are in the hands of the various emanations of Ala, referring to an Odinani deity, the python of the quote with which I started the review, something “sacred, beyond reptile.” Ada has travelled far from Nigeria, but the spirits follow her. The novel begins with a we-narrator, whose forms are indistinct, but which at one point are defined by themselves as “Smoke … a complicated gray” and “Shadow … deep black.” What’s not vague, however, is the narrative voice of these semi-characters navigating Ada’s new reality in America. The we-narrator exhibits a distinctive way of infiltrating and controlling Ada’s existence. Later, triggered by a traumatic experience, another spirit appears in Ada’s “marble room” – the metaphysical level of the text, Ada’s mind – called Asughara. Everything in Freshwater is filtered through the space of this marble room, where the smoke, the shadow, Asughara, or Ada herself communicate and control one another.

Emezi’s debut work is vividly written with sensuous language. The amount of tasty detail in some passages is admirable, like here where she writes about “the wet blackness of [Ada’s] eyes” and the “pomegranate water and honey under [the priest’s] fingernails” during her christening. However, there are moments in the latter part of the novel that resort to semi-tacky, cuss-driven dialogue, which do not assimilate so well into the otherwise intricate, almost mythical language of the spirits. But maybe it’s intentional. Maybe the spirits lose their ground and act more childishly when Ada, over the course of the novel, regains agency over her life. Be as it may, Freshwater is a refreshing and timely novel, because the notion of multiple selves provides an interesting analogy to contemporary ideas of identity as something fluid and multifaceted. It goes hand in hand in with Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity, if you excuse my imposition of a Western idea on Igbo concepts. I’m intrigued to see where Emezi goes from here, although I think I already heard that she has a young adult novel lined up for next year, followed by another literary novel in 2020.

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