‘Freshwater’ is a primal dive into mental illness
Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel “Freshwater” is as fascinatingly fractured as its protagonist Ada, a woman plagued with a form of dissociative identity disorder. Yet rather than taking a scientific approach to her depiction, Emezi tells the story almost entirely from the perspective of Ada’s other selves, self-described “gods” that are trapped within her body, providing a primal plunge into the chaos of a mind that isn’t entirely whole. Her ailment is painted from the inside out, employing the supernatural to make sense of this condition. In one of the few chapters from her own perspective, Ada describes the tone of the novel best: “The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside — maybe that’s the exact definition of madness, come to think of it.”
The novel certainly isn’t for everyone. As a strong debut, it showcases Emezi’s ability to write from multiple perspectives, shifting tone and atmosphere on the fly to build a strong cast of characters that do not even exist within the tangible world of the novel. However, Emezi also drop-kicks the reader into a world ruled by these supernatural figures who have little concern for humanity’s well-being, requiring a great deal of trust from the reader that the novel will eventually unfold its logic — which it does, to an extent.
As the novel’s focal point on mental illness would suggest, it’s a bleak exploration of human thought and interaction. Emezi does not shy away from carnal desire, self-harm and human cruelty. Ada’s most prominent and powerful identity, Asughara (which translates as the Igbo word for “dagger”), is born from Ada’s sexual assault. Asughara presents Ada’s most malicious self, toying with sex and emotion for her own amusement. She initially has little concern for her “flesh prison” and often tries to plan Ada’s death to make an escape, but she justifies her evil as protection for Ada’s fragility in the world, often taking over to protect her from sex.
Most impressive about the novel is the way that Emezi slowly immerses the reader in the emotions of these gods, humanizing them throughout the course of the novel. Ada herself is by far one of the more minor characters in the novel, which focuses mainly on Asughara and a pair of even-toned spirits only known as “We.” As Asughara’s malice devolves into fierce protection over Ada, we get a sense of the way we justify our own deep desires to ourselves. Saint Vincent, Ada’s weaker identity, depicts human curiosity and symbolizes Ada’s exploration into sexual fluidity but from a perspective of innocence rather than impulse as shown in Asughara. As fractured as Ada’s psyche is, Emezi makes it startlingly easy to see ourselves in her.
“Freshwater” is undoubtedly an impressive debut. Emezi has incredible talent for storytelling that eases the reader into the rhythm of her prose, and her ability to shift and blend different perspectives within the same mind is as beautiful as it is ultimately frightening. Many may find the novel to be too bleak and otherworldly to be worth the read, but “Freshwater” rewards those with patience to see it through to the end. While the novel is thoroughly dark and demanding, it doesn’t forgo a sense of resolution and reparation.