freshwater by akwaeke emezi book cover
Published: February 13th 2018
An extraordinary debut novel, Freshwater explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born "with one foot on the other side." Unsettling, heartwrenching, dark, and powerful, Freshwater is a sharp evocation of a rare way of experiencing the world, one that illuminates how we all construct our identities.Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled…


Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is an extraordinary and enthralling multicultural work of art. I hope that this review will be as coherent as I intend it to be. For the reason that putting my thoughts and opinions about this novel to words was not easy. Starting this off with emphasis on how this read was sombre, disturbing. Yet vibrant, inspiring and highly introspective for me. I like to believe I speak the same for most readers.

“Think of brief insanities that are in you, not just the ones that blossomed as you grew into taller, more sinful versions of yourself, but the ones you were born with, tucked behind your liver. Take us, for instance.”

~Excerpt from Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi; Theme & Style.

This remarkable semi-autobiographic debut by Emezi entails a fascinating approach to a lot of difficult topics experienced by Ada. Ranging from mental health, self-harm, sexual and emotional abuse to gender dysphoria. In addition, an imaginative and lyrical prose paying intricate attention to Igbo mythology. This brings me to the topic of ogbanje; spirit child. A response from an Igbo diety. Ada’s existence is linked with cosmic forces rooted in Igbo mythology. As Ada survives into adulthood as an ogbanje. She struggles to come to terms with the surreal demand that she is to follow a predestined path and its adverse effects.

Ogbanje are as liminal as is possible–spirit and human, both and neither. I am here and not here, real and not real, energy pushed into skin and bone. I am my others; we are one and we are many. Everything gets clearer each day, as long as I listen. With each morning, I am less afraid.

~Excerpt from Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

For this reason, the collision of the two realities brings about one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had reading a novel of this kind. Following this, keep in mind (If you haven’t read the novel). Freshwater can be read in different perspectives. Perceived and experienced in many ways. For instance, Ada’s experiences with mental health issues, sexual abuse, an eating disorder etc. In the novel, viewed as effects that arise as a result of being an ogbanje. Rather than viewed as conditions that require counselling or treatment. Consequently, readers who are not accustomed to the conditions being treated superficially may find it difficult. In addition the poetic depiction of mental illness. Most notably, correlation in the aspect of gender identity and ogbanje .

Narrative Structure.

This novel took A LOT of patience to read (If you haven’t read it, you’re going to need it). Firstly, if you are a reader who strives on consistency, a linear storyline or progressive character development. Freshwater will likely prove to be a difficult read. Thus, this novel is more like a series of narrations and events. With highly poetic sections, metaphorical narrations, overlapping stories retold differently. Secondly, there is no build-up. The nonlinear quality of the narrative especially in the earlier chapters, were in the form of poems and diary entries. A lot of it was arduous to read. I found myself often confused as to how certain things came about. That is to say the novel can be perceived to be choppily written, occasionally flat, repetitive and boring.

Given the narrative, although strenuous to stay engaged with. I must give the author credit for the effort of pulling off such a beautifully crafted novel. Moreover, the title of the book honestly makes little to no sense to me. Neither does its reference at the end of the novel nor what it was trying to convey.

Plot & Characters.

Firstly, expect very toxic, significant and fleeting relationships. And toxic characters with no real character development. I cannot stress this enough. Secondly, the story starts by introducing us to Ada in a first-person collective voice; “We”. And maps a precise trajectory of her talented but troubled mind and dysfunctional upbringing from childhood. To her turbulent college years of inconsistent behavior, self-destructive behavior, sexual violence and psychosocial identity crisis.

“Even when she couldn’t cut her skin anymore, I was sharp enough to do it from the inside because we both knew the sacrifices could never stop”

~Excerpt from Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

The story centered on Ada’s ability to accept and coexist with the entities inside her. Along with the adverse effects. It was very emotionally exhausting going through Ada’s journey through the pages. She strives to bridge gaps between her and her conflicting multitudinous selves. I had a very strong dislike for ‘We’. Ferocious, hedonistic, vain, selfish and most especially toxic. These are some of the few words I can use to describe them. Not surprising, as they are “gods”. The most toxic relationship is the one Ada has with her many selves, especially Asughara. The most intense and consequential has to be her fleeting relationship with Ewan which I enjoyed reading about. In spite of its toxicity. Akwaeke expressed these enthralling dynamics with a vibrant lyrical prose.

When we fell back, it tasted like a kind of death. But as the Ada moved out of our shadow and into her body, we found ourself watching her with a grim pride.. She was scarred, yes, gouged in places even. But she was–she has always been– a terrifyingly beautiful thing. If you ever saw her at her fullest, you would understand-power becomes the child. She is heavy and unbearably light, still her mother’s hatchling. Think of her when the is rich, flatulent, bursting with pus and light, repugnant with strength. Yes, now you are beginning to understand.

~Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi


There are more aspects to this unique and transforming novel especially Ada’s journey to peace. In addition the metaphysical storytelling by the spirits and the role each character played in her journey. I would love to discuss. But there is only so much I can say. This novel is definitely a book club novel. There is so much to unravel.

A dark, unflinching and symbolic novel. Written in a mythic poetic tone, portraying the surreal and chaotic journey of a young woman’s transformation.

A difficult yet worthy read.

3.8Overall Score


Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is a unique and vibrant spiritual literary fiction about a woman's struggles and journey of trauma, mental illness, gender identity, sexual violence, inner peace and ...

  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Pacing
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8 thoughts on “Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi”

  1. Suleiman Lawal

    Great review. I felt the exact same way. It’s a book I love but also have multiple issues with. I love how some books are great but also have flaws. I find they stay the longest on my mind and inspire the most discussion amongst people. That’s a quality I appreciate in imperfect art

    While we spoke about this book when you were half way through it, you mentioned this being a tricky one to word and I can see just why. The non-linear storyline, narrations and poems. I’ve never been familiar with Igbo mythology but I’ve had some interest in it. Ada’s experiences with the entities inside her and the perspectives which one can look at this book from draws a lot of curiosity. A lot of thought and skill was put into this review and it’s captured and translated your opinions towards it excellently. Well written! Definitely a book in my list. Your biggest fan

    This has to be one of your best reviews YET. You are so honest, eloquent and informative with your reviews I love it. You really can sell a book. Now I’m not sure this is a book I want to read now, doesn’t look like a feel good book and I’m on a roll with those. Maybe some day lol
    Great review 👏🏼

    I am yet to read a book from a Nigerian author that has disappointed me. I don’t think this will. As soon as I saw the name, I was like sold. Reading this review sealed the deal no doubt. I can see that it’s a difficult but worthy one.

      Same here actually. The lyrical prose of Nigerian authors is a topic for another day. They do such an amazing job.
      Let us know when you’re done!

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