Sunday, 3 January 2021

Book Review: Freshwater by Akweake Emezi

Freshwater Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A most intriguing read.

The author is on my list of Nigerian writers to read and I wanted to start with her first novel which this is. Akwaeke Emezi is Igbo/Tamil, raised in NIgeria, living in USA. She won the 2017 Commonwealth short story prize for Africa with her short story Igbo cultural cosmology. This book is the story of a young woman, abused to the point of self disintegration and the multiple personalities as they would be called in the North which materialise as she struggles through her youth, spiraling out of control through disastrous sexual encounteres and self mutilations. The author tells the young woman's story through her various voices, showing the reader how these difering daemons play out in her rollercoaster of a life. They are written as if they were spirits, gods in her body, trapped within the marble of her mind from which sometimes one, sometimes another and sometimes the girl herself are to the fore in her daily life.

A bit of context is useful to understanding this - The Igbo use the term ogbanje to denote an essentially evil spirit, the "children who come and go" which from birth to puberty cycle through death and return causing much grief to the family. Female circumcision is thought to get rid of them. The high female god Ala is the goddess of earth, fertility, mortality who holds the deceased in her womb, is the guardian of women and rules the underworld. Her messenger on earth to the living is the Python. Tributes to her are paid during the annual Yam Festival.

Ada has been named after the Python, and the spirits inside her, the personalities are obanje. This is a survival story, the story about coming to terms with the trauma of abuse and finding who you are after it.

It is an incredibly ambitious first novel. Does it work, does Emezi bring it off? To a certain extent yes. She clearly is an imaginative, highly creative writer or budding talent. For me the novel was a bit too long and I felt the story could have been improved by a compression. But yes she does give you an insight into the young women's mental state without it being bathed in the usual jargon and metaphors. The struggle for control is there, the despair, the need for escape, to blot out the unidentifiable trauma, the desperation. I most certainly will read more by her.

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