Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Posted March 25, 2021 by Amber in Reviews / 0 Comments



by Akwaeke Emezi

Publisher: Grove Press on February 13, 2018
Genre: LGBTQIAP+, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism
Target Age Group: Adult
Representation: BIPOC, Black, LGBTQIAP+, Non-Binary, Own Voices Author
Content Warnings: Blood, Child Abuse, Eating Disorder, Emotional Abuse, Mental Health Conditions, Rape, Self-Harm, Sexual Assault, Sexual Content, Sexual Violence, Suicidal Thoughts, Suicide, Suicide Attempt, Toxic Relationship, Transphobia

Rating: ★★★★

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An extraordinary debut novel, Freshwater explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born "with one foot on the other side." Unsettling, heartwrenching, dark, and powerful, Freshwater is a sharp evocation of a rare way of experiencing the world, one that illuminates how we all construct our identities.

Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves--now protective, now hedonistic--move into control, Ada's life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.


I could tell early on that Freshwater was not going to be a great fit for me as a reader.  Literary fiction is a bit hit-or-miss.  I like the lyrical language used in the genre, but the stories often don’t hold my interest.  This is to say nothing against the books themselves in the literary fiction genre – I’m used to fantasy, which tends to be more quickly paced.

Freshwater is told in an interesting way, from the perspective of multiple personalities inside the body of a young woman.  This split in self is  not mental health related, it’s because Ada is ogbanje, which is similar to the western idea of a changeling.  In Freshwater, we learn of the development of Ada’s selves, as well as multiple levels of transition – physical, sexual, spiritual, emotional.  it’s beautifully written and the perspectives were each intriguing and easy to differentiate, even in audiobook form.  I fully appreciated Emezi’s work in Freshwater and am happy to attest that it’s a wonderful book.

The narrative within Freshwater feels detached, but I also believe that’s one of the intriguing things about the way this book is written.  The ogbanje is experiencing human life, but it is not invested, not fully living it.  Depending on the personality narrating at the time, you feel a different primal emotion, or the thought patterns present differently.  As a reader, I liked the detached storytelling for two reasons.  First, I found it drove the characterization really well.  Second, there is a lot of trauma in Freshwater.

Telling the story from a more distant perspective helps the reader witness the trauma without being as damaged by it.  In very much the same way Asugara protects Ada from the horrors of her life, so to does this storytelling allow the reader to see what is happening and be angry about it… but it limits the descriptions to a place where it feels… safer.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d still slap a huge content warning on it.

Freshwater is the sort of book that… I don’t know if I’d recommend, per se.  It’s well-written, but it’s heavy and heartbreaking and very different from other books.  It would have to be recommended to a certain kind of reader.  Or I think someone would have to solicit my opinion on it.  If you’re intrigued, pick it up (that’s what I did!) but know that it’s a little magical realism, a little literary fiction, and a lot of introspective language.  It’s a work of art, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it.

Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★★★
Plot: ★★★★
Characters: ★★★★
Writing: ★★★★★
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Narrator: ★★★ 1/2
Personal Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2

4 Star Rating


Have you read Freshwater?  If so, what did you think about it?  I’ve seen reviews all over the spectrum, so I’d be interested in your thoughts – let me know in the comments!

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