In her debut novel, Akwaeke Emezi offers a haunting yet stunning exploration of mental illness grounded in traditional Nigerian spirituality. This semi-autobiographical work centers on Ada, a Nigerian girl of Igbo ethnicity whose nature is both human and divine. She was born with multiple selves, each under the domain of a different ogbanje, dark spirits of the Igbo belief system.
Though claiming dominion over Ada’s body and soul, the ogbanje lay relatively dormant until she moves from Nigeria to a small town in Virginia for college. While there, a violent sexual encounter with an Eritrean-Danish romantic partner unleashes Asughara, the mischievous, hypersexual and most dominant of the ogbanje. Controlling Ada’s thoughts and actions, Asughara sends Ada on a descent toward insanity that includes self-mutilation, multiple lost relationships and ultimately a total loss of self-control.
Ada’s story is told by her multiple selves through alternating chapters. Employing precise and poetic yet accessible prose, Emezi brilliantly crafts distinct voices for each of Ada’s selves and puts them in conversation with each other. The multiple perspectives and swift pace of the prose lead to calculated confusion in the reader that mimics the movement of Ada’s consciousness. As such, Emezi’s particular use of structure and language allows the reader to not only witness but also experience the battle of incongruent identities that define Ada’s mental instability.
Emezi’s fusion of traditional Nigerian spirituality and Western understanding of mental illness is well executed. She treats the ogbanje not as novelty or fantasy, but rather as legitimate sources of Ada’s strife. She balances multiple lands, ethnicities, perspectives and belief systems with the ease of a writer far beyond her age and experience. Freshwater is a brutally beautiful rumination on consciousness and belief and a refreshing contribution to our literary landscape.