Meike's Reviews > Freshwater

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
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bookshelves: 2018-read, nigeria

Nominated for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2019
"Freshwater" cleverly discusses the human mind by inquiring what actually constitutes "mental illness": To what degree is our inner fragmentation - the multitude of feelings and urges, the freedom to be many things - part of the human condition, and when does it become harmful and destructive? Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi employs African myths and Igbo spirituality in order to tell the story of Ada, who might suffer from bipolar disorder - or not. Or maybe the terms used by mental health professionals are not suitable to describe her experience at all?

Ada was prayed into existence by her parents and is possessed by gods - she is many: "She was contaminated with us, a godly parasite with many heads, roaring inside the marble room of her mind." The god named Asughara is reckless and fueled by anger, but also protects Ada from the trauma that is tormenting her. Saint Vincent, on the other hand, is gentle and roaming her dreams (plus there are others, less mentioned ones, like Yshwa who seems to be a Christ-like figure). To live with the gods in one entity becomes more and more painful for Ada, she feels desperate, exhausted and "sectioned" - at the same time, one wonders if the gods aren't right when they are saying "we're the buffer between you and madness, we're not the madness".

Emezi touches upon many topics during her story, among them child abuse, rape, self-harm, alcohol, suicide, toxic relationships, and depression. Gender also plays a major role, with Ada identifying as a non-binary transgender person ("She could move between boy and girl, which was freedom, for her and for us (the gods).") - just like the author who invented her. In many ways, this is a roman à clef (hint: Also pay attention to surgeries, tattoos, and dresses mentioned, among other things).

Some of the possible psychological reasons for Ada's painful multiplicity are given very late in the text, there are important hints at around 50 % and as late as 90 % of the book that feel a little like a deus ex machina (ha! sorry) - clearly, an author can choose to structure her narrative like that, but I am not a fan. My main criticism is very subjective though - I never really warmed to the text, and I wasn't invested in the story. The whole novel is a fragmented, highly constructed experiment in which gods speak in very detached, abstract voices. Does this make sense poetically? Absolutely. I didn't enjoy reading it though.

But I clearly see how people could love this book and admire Emezi for her inventive, edgy story that dares to be ambiguous, peculiar and challenging. I would not be surprised if we saw "Freshwater" on the next longlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction.
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Reading Progress

August 13, 2018 – Shelved
August 13, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
August 24, 2018 – Started Reading
August 30, 2018 – Shelved as: 2018-read
August 30, 2018 – Shelved as: nigeria
August 30, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Gumble's Yard I was 3 stars also but I had thought you would love this. I am looking forward to your review.


Meike Thank you, Gumble! I wasn't really into this book (although I had such high hopes!), but I saw its literary merit.


message 3: by Michael (new) - added it

Michael Great review, Meike! I’m not sure if I’ll read this after reading your thoughts about it, but I’ll make sure to at least check it out the next time I’m at a bookstore.


Meike Michael wrote: "Great review, Meike! I’m not sure if I’ll read this after reading your thoughts about it, but I’ll make sure to at least check it out the next time I’m at a bookstore."

Thank you so much, Michael! I guess we might see it on some more award lists in the future, and while I didn't love it, it's certainly unique and challenging.


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