A review by woolgatherer
Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi

challenging dark emotional tense medium-paced


Freshwater is a relatively short book, but it was absolutely (and perhaps deliberately) challenging to read. It has its own pulse, breathing in an unsettling and yet entrancing manner that pulls you into liminal spaces rooted in Igbo beliefs.

Emezi challenges the reader and takes them out of their comfort zone. Their book sheds Western beliefs like python skin. Freshwater is brilliantly and cleverly written, deconstructing ideas of “mental illness” and gender/sexuality. It’s a critical examination of the influences of colonialism and the pervasiveness of Western understandings of the world. This is all done through one character, Ada, and the pushes and pulls she faces with the ọgbanje that live inside her. Her multiple selves tell the story in a unique fashion, though I was most taken to the moments we get Ada’s perspective (which doesn’t happen too often).

The thing about the ọgbanje is that they’re there to challenge you, the reader, just as much as they push Ada to a particular extreme that will be disorienting and uncomfortable. Furthermore, it’s traumatic and difficult to get through, as Emezi brings in content including but not limited to self-harm, attempted suicide, and sexual assault. Again, this is a challenging book to read and not meant to be consumed in one sitting.

Which leads me to my next point about Freshwater. I believe those who have tried to diagnose/label Ada and/or treated this book as magic realism read an entirely different book and, in my opinion, missed the point. This book will deconstruct what you know and understand in an unnerving way; it pushes you to come to terms with being utterly disoriented and take the position of rethinking how you look at things. Of course, Emezi isn’t throwing the reader into the deep end and expecting them to figure things out on their own. They write vivid descriptions and, at least to me, a followable storyline (in a way, I guess you could call this a Bildungsroman). I realize it’s a bit paradoxical to say that this book is disorienting and followable, but I think it makes sense once you get into the swing of things while reading this book.

Frankly, I can’t write anything that will do justice to Freshwater. All I can say is to read this book with a very open mind. Try not to get frustrated that you’re going to be shifting between liminal spaces that isn’t magic realism; these are very real spaces of an ọgbanje. And while this book will be challenging, Emezi’s incredible storytelling and lyrical writing will make it a worthwhile read.

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