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Nondumiso Tshabangu Reviews Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

FreshwaterStar Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5
Akwaeke Emezi
Faber & Faber, March 2018
Online Price: R244


A strange debut novel, Freshwater explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centres around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side”.

The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.

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 broken child, it becomes clear that something went terribly aslant.

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 manifestation 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.

Narrated by the various selves within Ada, Freshwater dazzles with fierce energy. It starts off scary, or rather as a strange and confusing wheeling, and ends up with a reader totally double-smacked with its piercing elicitation of a rare way of experiencing the world – one that illuminates how we all construct our identities.

It is a mesmerizing and poetic debut that crashes open ideas of self-control, mental illness, and love. With every passing page, I felt myself submerge into the complex depths of Ada’s identity, letting the waves of Igbo tradition infiltrate my understanding of the world and completely change my perception of a person’s agency.

Review by Nondumiso Tshabangu, editor of Africa’s Lit, the African literature-themed newsletter from Exclusive Books

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