Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Date of Publication: 13 February 2018
When a child is born the whole family remains involved with it. Chima’s next born Ada is no exception. She is the apple of every member’s eye. Ada is adored by all but little do they know that she’s special in a different way. Not just is she a fast learner, she’s also a bright and happy child with supernatural powers. Told from an initially confusing second person narrative, the story moves between the perspective of Ada and the spirits that reside within her.
A frightened Ada runs away when a coiled snake snarls at her during potty training in the bathroom corner. It is a similar snaky reptilian shape shifting figure in the image of an other worldly divinity that has been stuffed within her. These spirits are of the few who have been able to traverse the supernatural realm into the human world to reside within as individualistic masks. It is only in the second chapter that things start to get clearer when the coiled figures of ‘we’ identify themselves as the voices of the spirits. The child is often disturbed by their presence and is rattled in the middle of the night because of nightmares. What holds this enchanting story is its interesting narrative style. Emezi’s writing embodies lucidity to the core. It is as fluid and swift as a snake’s slithering maneuver. These spirits have been separated from the ‘brothersisters’ of their kind but each with a varied potentials and personalities just as it is with humans.
The story is highly desolate, very dense yet subtle at the same time. Certain lines can be picked up and hung around as universally true quotations. Almost each chapter leads to newer speculations that are never ending. “Love is almost protection enough” but at its heart the story dissects all kinds of love only to showcase the futility of loving in the face of difficult circumstances. There is only hurt, separation and more hurt to be braved. Anuli’s accidental run down by a truck is considered a sort of baptismal release of the spirit in the best possible fluid. The incident itself is dark, gory and graphic. Focusing on the couple Saul and Saachi who are both professionals and have a nuclear family. Their difficult financial status forces Saachi to work in Saudi Arabia as a nurse. Saul hates the money she makes but needs it. The woman takes up the role of the man as the bread earner of the family and Emezi proclaims that the best way to break a child is by taking the mother away.
These unnamed spirits take God like forms and like holy rituals are thirsty for holy sacrifice. These forces consider themselves Godly but they have none of God’s mercy, protection or forgiveness. They are every bit dark, sinister and respond only after having put through suffering. Like the snake sheds its skin, the spirits shed their old forms after the naming ceremony of Ada. Is she cursed or is the world? The pace of the story is moderate and easy to follow though very adventurous in a topsy turvy world. There is a constant cycle of birth and death, movement and invariability, sorrow piling upon sorrow with no little joys to steal from grim predicaments. What remains persistent throughout are the spirits. They are metaphoric of narcissism, self gratification and demons within our own selves, possession, spiritual awakening and teleportation. The metaphors function on several levels and are hard to do away with.
Though based on the ‘ogbanje’ things get darker as the narrative enters deeper into Igbo ontology. Moving to America is a whole new experience. Ada is a black person, sidelined and living on the margins of societal existence. University is not a pleasant experience as the treacheries of worldly pleasures take over her. Sins pile up as mountains but confession is a long way despite the fact that she’s guilt ridden. Forgiveness is not hoped for as it is hard to seek. The story remains disturbing throughout as Ada experiments with drugs, hormone pills, attempts suicide several times and looks schizophrenic and hallucinatory most of the time. The ‘we’ is not plural and the ‘I’ is not singular. The polyvocality infuses with the multiplicity of personalities which ultimately subsides into a single voice- the Satanic voice of evil whisperings:”…..and wallahi, I was unforgiving and petty and vindictive.”
Freshwater is almost like a fresh glass of water to a thirsty reader who’s waited too long to read something that’s never been done before. To sum down in a single adjective the story is ‘indescribable’. It is a sensual and breathtaking but must be read to be experienced. Freshwater is too mind boggling for a debut and will leave readers speculating over numerous abstractions like never before.
Surreal, mesmerizing and phenomenal.