6. A book written in Africa: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
List Progress: 18/30
A young woman named Ada is an ogbanje, an evil spirit. Or perhaps she just has one inside her. Or perhaps she is mentally ill. Or perhaps she is mentally ill, but also has spirits inside her. Or perhaps the truth is ever-shifting and there is no real answer. Freshwater, the debut novel by Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi, entertains all of these possibilities in one story. It is a rich idea and set-up that Freshwater spends a lot of time delving into, but somewhat at the expense of an actual plot and narrative arc.
The thing that enticed me the most about Freshwater is that it is almost entirely told from the perspective of the spirits living inside of Ada. They see her as a host, a flesh cave, occasionally a friend and sometimes a nuisance, but they can never feel too close to her, because they do not see reality as humans do. Different spirits narrate different chapters and each bring their own flavor and prose style, as does Ada on the rare occasions she narrates. We follow Ada from her childhood in Nigeria, to moving to America for college, and through an array of troubled relationships. Unfortunately, this piecemeal narrative makes for a bit of a slideshow effect, where we are shown snapshots of Ada’s life without a real sense of what everything is building to. Add in a slightly non-linear aspect, where important context about her childhood is not revealed until the end of the novel, and the story does not end up having much momentum.
Freshwater has been referred to as semi-autobiographical, and while I don’t know much about Emezi, this does feel like a very personal work. That goes a ways towards explaining both the pros and cons of this book: Emezi is close enough to richly portray the inside of the character’s head, but not far enough away to craft a beginning, middle and end to her own story. Freshwater is an intense, at times fascinating read, but it left me craving a bit more structural to hang its prose on.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, for a reader interested in a more experiential read.