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Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
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bookshelves: literary-fiction, mental-illness

This is a startlingly raw and dark novel about spirituality, abuse, trauma and mental illness. In this fresh perspective, debut novelist Akwaeke Emezi embeds ogbanje, or nonhuman entities, within Ada, a girl born to parents who had prayed to the God Ala for a daughter. Ala, a serpentine God, the judge and mother who holds the underworld in her belly grants the parents their wish. Thus, Ada (name meaning the egg of a python) is born to suffer the fate of having spirits reside inside of her. For a time, Ada tries to present a unified front wherein she and the spirits within her are one. However, with abuse and trauma, she becomes more fractured and these spirits within her exert their influence in different ways.

Ada appeases the spirits within her from an early age by cutting. After a sexual assault in college she gives herself over to Asughara often and especially when she is to be intimate with anyone. Asughara is trying to protect the Ada from these incidents, but also derives pleasure from the experience, leading to sexual compulsion. Ada finds it hard to be herself even in a loving marriage. She struggles with self mutilation, suicidality, gender dysphoria and fractured sense of identity.

The life of Ada is based loosely on the author’s own life. Akwaeke Emezi is Igbo and was born in Nigeria. Her sister, like Ada’s, was in a terrible accident. Akwaeke was molested as a young girl. She self describes herself as gender dysphoric and has had surgeries to remove her breasts and her reproductive organs. She didn’t want her breasts removed to become male, but to be able to wear dresses and switch between genders more easily. The author’s name has a direct connection to an Igbo deity, like Ada’s. She has attempted suicide.

I love that this novel brings attention to issues of gender violence, self mutilation, suicidality, mental illness, fractured identity, and gender dysphoria. It is written in such a unique way that incorporates spirituality and the author’s Igbo culture. The writing is excellent. My only complaint is the dizzying and disorienting effect of reading narrations of the various different identities, but perhaps that is the feeling the author meant to convey. I did not trust my own recollection of what I had read at times, because one reality of the life Ada experiences is completely differently from the next. This novel offers a fascinating explanation and exploration of the experience of mental illness and gender dysphoria. There is so much to think about and ways to interpret what the author is conveying, that this would make a great book club book.

Thank you to net galley for an ARC of this book in exchange for honest review.

For discussion questions, please see: http://www.book-chatter.com/?p=3197
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Reading Progress

February 12, 2018 – Started Reading
February 12, 2018 – Shelved
March 14, 2018 – Shelved as: literary-fiction
March 14, 2018 – Shelved as: mental-illness
March 14, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Diane (new)

Diane Wallace Great review, Marie!


Marie Thank you Diane!


PattyMacDotComma Great review, Marie. I loved this one. I agree it would make a good choice for a book club.


Marie PattyMacDotComma wrote: "Great review, Marie. I loved this one. I agree it would make a good choice for a book club.". Thanks Patty! I had a hard time reading it at times, but really appreciated it when finished.


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