Review: Freshwater

Akwaeke Emezi's standout first novel, Freshwater, is a riveting and peculiar variation on coming of age. Ada is a Nigerian girl born into great power. Her name invokes the serpent deity of an ancient pantheon, and beckons an Igbo god collective to inhabit her form. "Before a christ-induced amnesia struck the humans, it was well known that the python was sacred." These ogbanje are the voices that narrate Ada's youth and blooming adulthood, holding their vessel captive to their whims and assuming control when necessary to protect her.

The girl's childhood is marked by an unstable home life and volatile parents that compound her inner torments. She immigrates to the United States for school, where she is introduced to an ongoing legacy of virulent racism. The cruelty she faces intensifies with betrayals and sexual assault, and in time the supernatural swirl inside her coalesces into one, then two, then more gods who take center stage.

Asughara seizes control of Ada's body as a vessel of erotic pleasure and manipulation, protecting her from the destructive cravings of men. Saint Vincent, on the other hand, acts as her cool and gentle, queerly masculine counterweight of desire for other women. Yshwa, however, and his biblical yearning for the vulnerability preached by missionary outsiders draws the ire of the others, especially Asughara. But even she cowers in fear at the foreboding elders who threaten to snatch them all back to the liminal world of their origin.

While Freshwater touches the many dark, complicated notes of a troubled adolescence, Emezi extrapolates their consequences into a deliriously metaphysical realm. Mental health, self-harm, abuse, heartbreak and isolation take on supernatural gravity, and mundane natural elements manifest with strong, sometimes harsh, physicality.

Ada is raped by a college boyfriend; "this boy with doe eyes... had released clouds into her" even after "there had been so many refusals... piled up like small red bricks." She tries to flee, but he seizes her. She screams until "the veils in her head, they tore, they ripped, they collapsed," and Asughara takes form for the first time in the marble room of Ada's mind. She becomes the girl's protector, although she is reckless with her power.

The poetics of Emezi's prose enhance the mythology she evokes. As enchanting as it is unsettling, Freshwater tickles all six senses. The chorus of voices narrating Ada's life achieves a remarkable balance between cruel machinations of cavalier deities and deep empathy for the distressed vessel they inhabit. But whether they are the source of Ada's problems or her buoy against them is one question that drives this refreshingly imaginative debut. "All water is connected," as the ogbanje say, and "all freshwater comes out of the mouth of a python." --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Shelf Talker: An ancient god collective guide and guard the young woman they inhabit throughout a treacherous coming of age in Akwaeke Emezi's dazzling debut novel.

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