Freshwater is probably the most creative story you will read all year. Bursting with more imagination than a three-year-old, slippery as the python gracing its cover and as deep as the words of the title fresh water evoke, Nigerian-born author Akwaeke Emezi has created a character-driven story that will either confuse the reader or elucidate their way for deeper understanding of themselves and the universe. I suppose it depends on just how enlightened you are. I’ll let you decide what enlightened means to you.
Emezi takes the reader to that amorphous in between where mental illness and magical thinking bracket the main character, Ada, an attractive, intelligent and sensitive young woman. We do not first meet Ada as a child, rather we meet the voices or entities in her head. They are your introduction to the story, they are your introduction to the world Emezi has crafted. They see themselves as real and both they and the author wants you to see them as such as well.
If you remove the gods that live within the girl, this is a simple coming-of-age story in which deals with family conflict, moves to the US for school where she parties, goes to class and falls in and out and back into love. It’s just that there are gods in her head… so, yeah.
Freshwater is either a story about a young woman’s descent into madness courtesy of the voices in her head, or it is an origin story of mythological proportion complete with gods, secret realms and magic. But it can’t be both. Depending on your world view, you’ll see one story or the other. Not that it can’t change halfway through, because it can and it probably will.
It happened to me. I thought I was reading one story and then my understanding transformed into something else.
If you take away the dark, supernatural undertones, Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is at heart a simple coming of age story.
The gods that live within Ada have names and distinct personalities and you’ll get to know them as well as you get to know the main character, if not better. Her point of view, interestingly comes much later in the book. Much too late for you to really assume she’s delusional or schizophrenic. No, you’ll be committed to the reality of the story long before you consider that maybe, just maybe there aren’t gods living within her.
Freshwater in its entirety is a prompt for deeper thinking, for further writing, and probably some journal writing. Introspection is required. You might not be sure what to think after you’ve finished the story, but you’ll be thinking. And that is key.
A bit of a shapeshifter, Freshwater is magical in its writing but not effusively so, you will not be overwhelmed by the author’s slate of hands with words but you will probably be stunned by the images she creates – on the page and in your mind. Freshwater begins sweet and innocent soft as velvet to the touch, which is a good thing. A helpful thing. Because the story grows into something brutal and stark, unexpectedly sharp and prickly before it’s all over.
Emezi has written a story in which it is almost impossible to deny the reality she has created. And once that reality is created, the reader can easily see the possibilities of such a story being true. But then, how do you answer the question? Is there madness? Or are there gods? What is out there? What is inside of us? How to answer? How to know?
Freshwater is a story you’ll want to share with that especially deep friend you save for conversations about the meaning of life. But this story could just as easily be debated at a bible study meeting or among a team of scientists, there’s something for everyone to chew on in this fantastical debut.