Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is a highly unusual novel. The narrative unfolds by alternating the first-person point of view of each of the many personalities inhabiting the single body of the central character, Ada.
The novel opens with the voice of “We” who self-identifies as an ogbanje (a spirit in Igbo folklore) and as a child of Ala, the python. “We” inhabits Ada’s body while Ada she is still in her mother’s womb and continues to reside there after her birth, interacting with Ada and directing her movements. “We” temporarily recedes into the background with Ada’s arrival in America to study.
After Ada is raped by Soren, Asughara emerges. Asughara, a second spirit, thrives on violence, partying, promiscuity, alcohol, and drugs. Asughara directs Ada’s movements and speech, all the while fighting for control of Ada with another of Ada’s resident spirits, Yshwa (Ada’s Christ). And then we meet a fourth spirit, St. Vincent, who loves women and appears only in Ada’s dreams—her “dreambody.”
If all this sounds convoluted, that is because it is.
The novel eschews a logical sequence. Much of the narrative is cryptic and incoherent in nature. Smatterings of the same event are alluded to intermittently through the differing perspective of whichever spirit has the dominant voice at the time. The structure moves in a circular motion, looping back on itself, moving forward, and adding a little more detail with each subsequent retelling. The fragmented nature of the structure reflects the shattered pieces of Ada’s life: the bits and pieces have to be reassembled in order to generate meaning and wholeness.
As the novel unfolds, we learn Ada experienced sexual assault as a child and was severely beaten. She begins cutting herself at the age of twelve to appease her raging internal spirts and she continues to do so for twelve years. As an adult, she is suicidal, anorexic, and struggles with her gender identity. She finds little comfort in therapy and converses regularly with each of her internal spirits, all of whom claim they are there to protect her and have her best interests at heart.
Akwaeke Emezi has written a highly original, complex, and unsettling novel that lends itself to levels of interpretation. The ogbanje inform Igbo folklore and play a prominent role as spirits capable of inhabiting a body and controlling its behavior. But here they can also be seen as buffers created in the mind of a young child to shield herself from the abuse she suffered. She projects these buffers to the outside world in order to protect her inner core. They assume a life of their own in her mind. Plagued with guilt and self-blame for the abuse she experienced, she punishes herself by feeding her internal spirits with cuts in her skin. She absolves herself for destructive and callous behavior toward her many lovers by claiming Asughara controls her. All the while, she wages a constant battle within herself and between her many selves for control.
The complexity of the novel’s narrative structure and intense subject matter may not appeal to some readers. But it is to be commended for its originality, lyrical prose, and ability to depict an intimate portrait of splintered identities within a traumatized individual.