Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
My rating: 4/5 cats
fulfilling my 2019 goal to read (at least) one book each month that i bought in hardcover and put off reading long enough that it is now in paperback.
this is a fucking terrific book.
now that that’s out of the way: a brief digression with two lessons at its core. one for authors about how they should never let a ‘bad’ review discourage them, and one for readers about how sometimes the wrong book can lead you to the right one.
i recently read emezi’s soon-to-be-released YA novel Pet, which has gotten a ton of gushing prepub attention, and many five
star cat reviews on here. i thought it was fine but not my kind of great, so i gave it three stars cats, which is a perfectly good and respectable rating. i know some authors who get all dispirited over their three- star cat ratings (and to be clear—i am not suggesting that emezi is one of them), but to me, three stars cats means anywhere from okay to pretty good but just not my kind of great. but, and here’s where it’s the readers’ turn to pay attention: i bought Freshwater the day it came out because it seemed to be so exactly my kind of great; dark and mythical and fierce, but then life and other books got in the way and i never got around to reading it. so after being only medium about Pet, i finally decided to read Freshwater, to see if i was right about my own tastes, and here we are.
this book is ferocious and fast-paced and under 300 pages, but there’s an emotional weight to it that requires you to consciously stop yourself from tearing through so you can slow down and appreciate it. the writing is beautiful and the ‘what’ of it is a multilayered mindfuck which suggests several equally satisfying interpretive conclusions that, due to the stylistic decisions, do not—oddly—conflict with each other or cancel each other out.
at its most cliffs notes, it’s about identity and the divided self. whether that division is the result of a nonbinary gender identity, mental illness, psychic fracturing as a PTSD-related coping mechanism, or just—you know—a bunch of pesky ogbanje inhabiting your human skin alongside you, is a distinction—not irrelevant, necessarily, just that it all looks pretty similar from the outside—an inconsistency of behavior, a fluid sense of self.
on the inside, it’s incredibly psychologically dislocating and their writing really conveys the feeling of being caged in the human body with an ‘other;’ it’s claustrophobic, where ada is at times helpless, at times complicit or grateful for someone/thing else taking over the demands of the body, even when it is used in a self-destructive manner.
it’s ambiguous, symbolic, metaphorical, deeply distressing. the interpretation is as fluid and chaotic as anything else in the book, including its writing style, which reminded me a lot of God Head; a book that was so vividly able to replicate the inner landscape of a mental disorder.
this one plays rough; there is a lot of trauma in these pages: cutting, eating disorders, sexual assault and abuse, depression, suicide, etc.
the idea of cutting as a means of making blood sacrifices to supernatural entities, scars serving as physical evidence of devotion, was not something i have seen explored elsewhere and was particularly powerful and oddly lovely:
We understood. It is like we said: when gods awaken in you, sometimes you carve yourself up to satisfy them.
there’s an emphasis on the body throughout, on the idea of transformation—of cutting skin, hair, View Spoiler »removing unwanted breasts « Hide Spoiler, of starving it down to size, on letting it explore its sexuality with different genders and through experiences motivated by love, by hatred, curiosity, boredom; the soft fragile shell of the human body battered by the appetites of gods.
it’s a scenario with so much promise, and one that i remember being excited by in anne rice’s The Tale of the Body Thief, which conceptual potential ended up being squandered in what was basically boring erotica. here, it’s gorgeous and cruel and profound.
love love loved it.
here is a thing i wrote about it for a project in which i participated, which is pretty much what i said about it here, only with all those capital letters people make you use when you’re being a professional person:
A compelling and oftentimes disturbing debut with autobiographical overtones in which trans, non-binary author Emezi borrows from African mythology to construct a narrative about identity and the divided self, using the inhabiting-spirits called ogbanje from their Nigerian homeland to mimic the claustrophobic experience of being just one of many entities contained within a human shell, and not always the dominant one. The ogbanje gain and cede power, resulting in a fluidity in terms of the body’s gender identity, sexual orientation, and degree of promiscuity; an inconsistency of personality that presents as mental disorder or instability. It is a fever dream of a story, narrated by the different spirits crowding a young woman’s body, and it is emotionally moving and frequently jarring, not only for its fast pacing and trading-off control of the body and mind, but for the powerful and painfully triggering inclusion of scenes depicting self-harm, mental illness, eating disorders, cutting, sexual assault and abuse, and PTSD.
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