Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi

This.

This is the novel I have been waiting for, for longer than I knew I was waiting for one.

It’s not an easy novel. It is brutal and heart wrenching in so many places. But it is beautiful and lyrical and wonderful.

And – I want to say this – I bought this book before it was nominated on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. There it was, sat in Waterstones, calling to me last Sunday, and the Monday after I saw it was announced on the longlist. I call dibs!

I suppose I should come to this review with a little context: I have loved Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chimamande Ngoze Adichie since I was making the leap of faith from A levels to degree level. Something – I am not sure what – about the Igbo and Yoruba mythologies and religions of Nigeria and West Africa has sung to me for thirty years. The egungun, the ọgbanje, Chukwu, chi, Alusi. These are familiar enough concepts.

And Emezi’s novel is narrated principally by “We”, who are children of the python, of the Ala who is the most important Alusi in the Igbo pantheon, goddess of the underworld and the earth. Our narrators are, therefore, spirits, ọgbanje. Godseeds planted within the child Ada from before birth, for reasons never quite made clear. And from the outset, they are distant, disengaged from Ada, the foetus who will become the child and vessel of their time on Earth.

There was a time before we had a body, when it was still building itself cell by cell inside the thin woman, meticulously producing organs, making systems. We used to flit in and out to see how the fetus was doing, whistling through the water it floated in and harmonizing with the songs the thin woman sang, Catholic hymns from her family, their bodies stored as ashes in the walls of a cathedral in Kuala Lumpur. It amused us to distort the chanting rhythm of the music, to twist it around the fetus till it kicked in glee. Sometimes we left the thin woman’s body to float behind her and explore the house she kept, following her through the shell-blue walls, watching her as she pressed dough into rounds and chapatis bubbled under her hands.

And so our fetus body was fed and we visited, and when we were tired of their world, we left for our own. Back then, we were still free. It was nothing to slip away, along the bitter streams of chalk.

At the moment of birth, however, these spirits are enfleshed and imprisoned within Ada, or the Ada as they refer to her. They were

wrenched, dragged through the gates, across a river, and through the back door of the thin woman’s womb, thrust into the rippling water and the small sleeping body floating within. It was time… We were used to the… option of leaving, of returning to the place we came from, free like spirits are meant to be. To be singled out and locked into the blurred consciousness of a little mind? We refused. It would be madness.

For whatever reason – the spirits’ “refusal” to be caged in flesh, or the Gods’ whim or negligence – the gateways between the human world and the spirit world were not closed properly and we were aware of the millennia of experience and recalled the other world whilst being simultaneously new-born and innocent and fleshly. Parasites, attached to Ada’s soul, separate to but conjoined with her mind. Still within Chapter One, we are told that “it was clear that she (the baby) was going to go mad.”

Which may or may not be true.

At one level, we do follow Ada through a series of events which are deeply traumatic and suggest that We, the ọgbanje, were metaphors and symbols of mental health issues. Ada – poor Ada – begins to self-harm and pursue a course of life which appears to be self-destructive. Through this, she names the ọgbanje who inhabit her body: Smoke and Shadow were the nebulous and incohate forms of her youth; Asụghara, who emerged from Us in blood and fury in response to Ada’s being raped and “sank my roots into her body, finding my grip on her capillaries and organs. I already knew that Ada was mine: mine to move and take and save”; and Saint Vincent, formed alongside Asụghara, biding his time mainly.

Asụghara takes centre stage within the novel. She is a weaponised form of the ọgbanje, weaponising love and sex. She protects Ada in a sense and forms a strange mutual relationship: Asụghara emerges whenever Ada has sex, saving her from the experience of penetration, but she also hunts and pursues and toys with the men around her, falling in with dangerous and violent men, bringing danger and violence out in more gentle men. She oozes sensuality, sexuality, pleasure and violence. She also tips Ada into a spiral of alcohol abuse, sex, overdoses, increased self harm and body modification. She explicitly wants Ada to die, to be returned to the spirit world, to her mother, to Ala, the python.

The external world in the novel is extraordinarily limited: Ada has a family, a brother Chima, a sister Añuli, parents Saachi and Saul but they are all rather distant from her narrative – save for one appalling incident for Añuli in the opening chapters; she has multiple lovers but they are often interchangeable, unnamed, tangential to the narrative; even her marriage to Ewan is referenced and then disposed of! The novel is wholly focused on the internal dynamics between Ada and her internal voices and masks… and don’t we all adapt and change and mask ourselves when we interact with the world?

There is a wonderful moment, an internal conversation between Ada’s soul and Asụghara in the constructed image of her mind where, both drunk, they reminisce and Ada comments

“Sometimes when I think about you, I can see you standing right next to me and it’s like we’re twins.”

I gave her a look. “You know we’re identical, right?”
She shushed me with her hand. “Except, when you’re standing next to me, you’re all covered in blood.”
I drank some more. “That seems accurate.”
“You’d be like the older twin, though, because you take care of me.”
“I’m not very good at that.”
Ada shrugged. “Eh. In your own way.”
I changed my drink to straight tequila. “No, I’m good at hurting people and leaving people, and I’m really good at hiding you so that nobody can get you again.”

The novel, throughout, explores liminal spaces. The spaces between things. Again, I have throughout my reading career been drawn to the power of the liminal space: the doorways and gateways and crossroads, the twilights rather than day or night. The gaps where in one mythology the faeries and witches dwell; in another mythology, the ọgbanje. And Emezi explores them beautifully. Just read the following description:

it was too late for the Ada to do anything except try to keep up with us, try not to be drowned in the liminal fluid we swam in. It tasted sharp as gin, metallic as blood, was soaked in both, down past the red into the deep loam. Ọgbanje space. We could rest in it like the inside curve of a calabash; we could turn in on ourself, wind back to our beginning, make those final folds. Sometimes they call this the crossroads, the message point, the hinge. It is also called flux space, the line or the edge—like we said, resurrection.

The ọgbanje are both male and female, single and plural, spirit and flesh, mortal and immortal, dangerous and vital. Death can be a resurrection. And Ada likewise explores this liminal space, rejects the imposition of the binary: she explores her sexuality with both men and women; she binds her breasts, goes through gender reassignment surgery. At this point, I will state that I am a cisgendered male because it doesn’t seem fair to state and describe – to publicise and perhaps make some claim over – another person’s gender identity without describing my own. Because Emezi is non-binary transgender and I’m not terribly comfortable that that fact has become public property. And, yes, I am aware that I am continuing to make it public property as I write this. But it has become very public property and even newsworthy in (amongst others)

There is a temptation to see parallels between Ada’s experiences and Emezi’s simply because they are a transgender character created by a transgender author. Both transition from female rather than to anything. But would I assume that a cis author was writing autobiographically simply because their character was cisgendered too? Of course not. Maybe Emezi’s experiences made them more sensitive to the liminal spaces in the world around her and her heritage; maybe their heritage and liminal sensitivity allowed her to question the binary nature of her own identity. And, if one were to ask Emezi why they transitioned, I doubt that they would cite either insanity or demonic possession.

Or, maybe – just maybe – they are just a great and powerful and lyrical and brutal writer. One who absolutely deserves to be praised to the rafters.

Does this novel merit inclusion on the longlist? Absolutely! And with a very strong chance to reach the shortlist and, in my humble opinion, to win it.

Does it qualify for the Women’s Prize? Well, that is a question for the judges and for Emezi – who I believe was consulted before the longlist published – and if they are both happy with her nomination, who on earth else has a right to challenge that?

I was expecting the novel to end in the only way that I saw that it could end and it surprised me that Emezi took it a different and much more hopeful and optimistic route. It was a beautiful and wonderful conclusion. We hear very little from Ada herself as a narrator: a mere four chapters and they are rather short. But Emezi does give her the last word – in fact the last chapter – and makes it redolent with promise and acceptance by Ada of her liminal identity and empowerment. For hearing so little from her, it is amazing that she feels so very very alive in the novel.

We have a saying back home: Ịchụrụ chi ya aka mgba. One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match….

Why should I be afraid? I am the source of the spring.
All freshwater comes out of my mouth.

In short, returning to where I began in this review, as Emezi returns to where they first began in the novel, this is the novel I had been waiting for. And, finding out that they have a young adult novel, Pet, due for release too, I shall be awaiting that too!

Ratings:

Overall: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Characters: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Language: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Date: 1 November 2018

Available: Amazon

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