Freshwater is a unique debut novel from Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi. It’s gives us magical realism without colonialism, using Nigerian and Igbo perspectives. Primary among these is the idea of obanje, which is an Igbo spirit that floats through mother’s wombs before they give birth. Obanje also become present within those children, as Emezi says “in the liminal spaces.”
Liminal is a new word for me, meaning occupying both sides or on the threshold. In this case the side are spirit and human. Emezi creates her voices, or obanje, around the human girl called Ada. At first, Freshwater is told by a pair of spirits using the plural voice. Then she uses third person to tell more of Ada’s story. How she was prayed into existence by her physician father, Saul. About her siblings, and her mother Saachi.
But the heart of the book is the relationship between Ada and the spirits who inhabit her. There’s also a spirit called Asụghara, who comes into being during a traumatic experience in Ada’s college years. Asụghara Is a rebel, and draws Ada from the virginal girl to the other side of hedonism. So again, Emezi has her main characters straddling a threshold.
There are quite a few interviews with Emezi available online, and I found them helpful as I distilled the novel. Her perspective is nonbinary in terms of both gender and spirit vs. human. She’s also taken the concept of magical realism and infused it with Nigerian and Igbo traditions, moving it to a completely different plane in the process.
I found Freshwater to be a challenging read. The nature of the story is confusion. Ada and her spirits are caught up in it, and Emezi lets the reader feel their frustration. I started by listening to this on audio, and quickly switched to print so that I could take advantage of the important visual cues at the beginning of chapters.
I love the “own voices” quality of Freshwater. Not only is Akwaeke Emezi Nigerian, she is openly gender nonconforming, and lives in those liminal spaces. According to her interviews, she created Ada and the obanje as a fictionalized representation of her own experiences.
You may or may not feel Freshwater represents multiple personality disorder from the patient’s point of view. Either way, reading this book took me to another place, far from my comfort zone of white, hertero, cisgender, suburban wife and mother.
In terms of writing style and pacing, Freshwater is lyrical but also revels in its sharp edges. It moves forward evenly enough, but the varying characters create fits and starts.
Nevertheless, this is an evocative novel from a writer sure to become even more celebrated.
Many thanks to NetGalley, the author, and Grove Atlantic for the digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.