This is a novel as full of the violence of what it means to have a physical self as Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. When describing the motion of cutting herself Emezi writes, ‘the skin sighed apart’... The collective voice drowns out her better judgment and drives her to ever greater extremes. As a narrative device it is deft and ingenious, allowing the author to deal in new ways with what might otherwise feel indulgent. Whatever voice Emezi uses, her writing is never less than compelling.
This much-hyped debut follows a Nigerian girl called Ada (or “the Ada”, as the spirits in her head call her) who goes to university in America, where she has a traumatic sexual experience, after which the malevolent spirit Asughara, alternating with the gentler male identity of Saint Vincent, comes to the fore and leads her into glass-smashing, self-harming and destructive relationships. It is the familiar idea of multiple personality and possession, given new life via African metaphysics, and it has propelled Emezi into celebrity and a Vogue photoshoot — ironically very contemporary, for a book that puts our understanding of mental illness back by 500 years. Freshwater flashes intermittently with beautiful and powerful writing, but it reads more like disturbed autobiography than novelistic creation, all the way to its grandiose end. The outline of Ada’s life is Emezi’s own, including body-customising surgery, and there is a lack of characters with any depth: they feel like walk-on parts who exist only as they impinge on Ada, in a narcissistic book that has something monumentally self-obsessed about it.
Reading Freshwater, the extraordinary debut novel from Akwaeke Emezi, feels like watching the beginning of something big: The book is so shivery, so electric, that the first coherent thought you can put together as you read is that you’re watching a major new talent beginning to carve out a space for herself... And Emezi’s voice is enormously playful, playing with the rhythms of sentences and the conflicting and contrasting voices in Ada’s head. Most striking of all is the “we” voice of the ogbanje, which skitters frenetically across the page, all id and godlike grandeur: It’s just alien enough to sound like a foreign presence in a human being’s head, but human enough that its resonances linger... Beyond all her verbal pyrotechnics, Emezi’s ability to literalize the experience of a fragmented identity is astonishing: It’s affecting without venturing into pathos, and hopeful without becoming saccharine. And she’s just getting started. One of the most exciting things about this book is imagining what Emezi will bring us next.
“Freshwater” is a poetic and disturbing depiction of mental illness as it haunts the protagonist from birth to adulthood... It is an unflinching account of the way mental illness can grow, transform and destroy not just relationships, but one’s sense of self as well. Unlike many depictions of dissociative identity disorder in fiction, Emezi steers clears of hysteria and fear-driven drama... More powerful than Emezi’s prose, though, is what it brings to the real world... This novel expands the universe of mental illness to include women of color and other ethnicities. Rooting Ada’s story in Igbo cosmology forces us to further question our paradigm for what causes mental illness and how it manifests. It causes us to question science and reason... “Freshwater” builds slowly, but that only crystallizes how fractured Ada and her personalities are. As the voices in her head get louder and grow hungrier, the story gains momentum.