‘Freshwater’: a bewitching tale of gods and a girl coming of age

Akwaeke Emezi's powerful and irresistibly unsettling debut follows a girl born with one foot in Nigeria and one in a primordial realm of gods and demons. The author will be at Elliott Bay Book Co. on March 1.

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Book Review |

by Akwaeke Emezi
Grove, 240 pp., $24


Akwaeke Emezi’s bewitching and heart-rending “Freshwater” is a coming-of-age novel like no other. It is the story of Ada, a girl born with one foot in Nigeria and one in a primordial realm of gods and demons.

Poised between these irreconcilable worlds, Ada’s blood thrills with reckless spirits and the marble chamber of her mind echoes with voices. It is these same voices who beckon the reader with wounding eloquence, telling us of their uneasy gestation in Ada, a broken vessel destined for what humans term madness. Still, they plead, “the first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.”

In typical bildungsromans (or stories of personal formation), we follow a young person’s lessons and insights as that person struggles toward a mature and integrated — or at least reconciled — selfhood. We have cherished this reassuring scenario in books as various as “Emma,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and even the Harry Potter books.

Emezi’s uncompromising narrative turns these Western norms and expectations on their heads. Owing to that cosmic error, a gate to the underworld left ajar, Ada’s personhood is at best an elaborate compromise, her selfhood an unpersuasive myth, her gendering a cruel and clumsy mistake. For anyone who has experienced life as a misfit or outcast, this is a resonant rendition.

Whereas many works of magical realism gradually weave otherworldly elements into familiar reality, Emezi reverses this process. Magic is the base reality, and the reader is plunged at once into a murky liminal space of blood, smoke and snakes. Disoriented, we grope toward the reassuring certainties of flesh and bone and naming. But to our seething narrators — the brothersisters — this sunlit life is a shadow show, a childish masquerade. Worse, it is a place of painful exile from their Igbo earth mother, Ala. Ada makes regular sacrifices, cutting and bleeding herself, but will anything short of suicide appease the rapacious gods within?

As these malevolent entities coil ominously inside her, Ada proceeds through the tragedies and wonders of childhood, eventually journeying far away from her estranged and distant parents to a college in America, “the land of the corrupters.” It is here in the wake of a traumatic sexual assault that a new and potent self named Asughara emerges from the shadows to take the reins.

Ruthless, indomitable and voracious, the femme fatale Asughara brandishes Ada like a weapon. She regales us with droll tales of sexual conquest and even trades quips with Yshwa himself, aka Jesus, who has been a steadfast but ineffectual comfort to Ada, and who like her was “born with spread gates,” a spirit made flesh with ultimately tragic results. Asughara pities and despises him. As for the status of Asughara’s relationship with Ada, as well as with Saint Vincent, a sinuous male self biding his time in Ada’s mind, and with the many humans she’s seduced with Ada’s body, well — it’s complicated.

Emezi describes this elaborate ontology in raw, sensual terms, steeping us in the smells and sights of her mythic world with incantatory lines that bring the ineffable to life. It isn’t crucial to one’s appreciation of this novel to know that it’s author describes it as somewhat autobiographical, but that fact combined with Emezi’s entrancing descriptive skill helps explain the disarming conviction of her telling. For all its sheer invention, “Freshwater” feels more like an interpretive journey through uncharted territory with an experienced guide. Potent and moving, knowing and strange, this is a powerful and irresistibly unsettling debut.


Akwaeke Emezi will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 1, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).