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.
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 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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