Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Hardcover, 240 pages
Expected publication: February 13th 2018 by Grove Press

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 baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves–now protective, now hedonistic–move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

Narrated by the various selves within Ada and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater dazzles with ferocious energy and serpentine grace, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.

It’s not easy to persuade a human to end their life – they’re very attached to it, even when it makes them miserable, and Ada was no different. But it’s not the decision to cross back that’s difficult; it’s the crossing itself.

Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is a novel of layers that do not always nicely overlap; in fact, the pieces often seem to not fit together at all. It is a novel born from trauma and emotional paroxysms, a read that erupts with them throughout. You have to peel back the layers to get to what Emezi has laid underneath, to find the gems, to find the hidden well of pain and sentiment offered here, and that may not be a satisfying journey for many readers.

Freshwater is the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman with a fractured self, or multiple personalities, due to the gods who have mistakenly taken root in her body and mind. It is a dark novel portraying the malevolence within us – that darkness at the very deepest depths of us that we hope to never have to witness of ourselves or in others. It is a novel that portrays the psychological effects of such darkness and emotional violence. When Ada comes into adulthood and leaves her splintered home for a new existence in a Virginia college, a traumatic sexual experience further shatters her mind and her multiple personalities are born. Ada fights a battle between herself, her other selves and her God she left behind, a battle to regain her equilibrium that veers her onto a dangerous course of self-destructive behavior. A path of bloodshed, tears and an equal dose of sexual trauma and exploration. Ada fights with herself, realizing something is wrong. She wants a change but her other personalities refuse to let her go.

Let me tell you now, I loved her because in the moment of her devastation, the moment she lost her mind, that girl reached for me so hard that she went completely mad, and I loved her because when I flooded through, she spread herself open and took me in without hesitation, bawling and broken, she absorbed me fiercely, all the way; she denied me nothing. I loved her because she gave me a name.

Freshwater was a novel that took a lot of patience for me to read. If you’re a reader who clings to continuity, who needs progressive character development to follow the path a protagonist’s life, or a reader who is in the least bit squeamish, this will likely prove to be a difficult read for you. Not an unworthy read – but a difficult one. The narrative leapt back and forth in time with new personalities and overlapping stories already told being retold differently. This book was a collage, a kaleidoscope, a reflection of a splintered self. Given the subject matter, the shattered quality of the narrative is understandable but at times arduous to read.

It was hard for me to fully connect with Freshwater when the moments of truth, heartbreak and the demise of entire relationships in Ada’s life were narrated, not fully shown in action. Emezi’s debut novel is more about the relationship between Ada and her other selves –internally—than it is about her outward experiences in the world. (view spoiler) It wasn’t enough for me, though some parts of the novel were absolutely gripping, and there were some lovely lines scattered throughout.

He wanted to pretend he was somehow better than he knew he was; he wasn’t ready to throw himself into sin. Humans find it easier to just lie and lie to themselves.

However, in those neglected moments (which is probably why the book is relatively short) the novel loses its soul and misses opportunities.

Other qualms:

The quote headings at the start of each chapter made no sense to me in the context of the story. Often, they made no sense to me at all though I got the feeling that they were Nigerian sayings. And I had too many WTF moments here because of the haphazard way life events and realizations were thrown into the narrative, no build-up, just dumped. I found myself reading whole passages and thinking, Where did this come from – outta thin air? That was the main issue I had with this novel: there was no real character development aside from Ada and Ewan, just a series of narrations and events.

I also never understood the title of the book. There was a reference to it at the end of the novel, but I found it to be too cryptic and unclear, so I still have no idea what it was trying to convey, why it was the namesake of the book. Because of this, I had the noteworthy experience of loving and hating Freshwater. There were moments where I couldn’t wait to turn the page and others where I skimmed past the incoherence of the We. Because of that, Freshwater’s dazzling and dreadful moments condensed down into a grade of 3 stars. ***

*I received an advance-read copy of the book from the publisher, Grove Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Goodreads    Twitter

 

Akwaeke Emezi Akwaeke Emezi

Advertisements

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published July 25th 2017 by Little, Brown and Company

For fans of Emma Cline’s THE GIRLS and Emily St John Mandel’s STATION 11, this dark, unsettling and hugely compelling story of an isolated island cult will get under your skin.

GATHER THE DAUGHTERS tells the story of an end-of-the-world cult founded years ago when ten men colonised an island. It’s a society in which men reign supreme, breeding is controlled, and knowledge of the outside world is kept to a minimum. Girls are wives-in-training: at the first sign of puberty, they must marry and have children. But until that point, every summer, island tradition dictates that the children live wildly: running free, making camps, sleeping on the beach. And it is at the end of one such summer that one of the youngest girls sees something so horrifying that life on the island can never be the same again.

“When a daughter submits to her father’s will, when a wife submits to her husband, when a woman is a helper to a man, we are worshiping the ancestors and their vision.”

Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters bowled me over in more ways than one. It was haunting, arresting, thought-provoking and confrontational in all the best ways possible. It pressed up against the boundaries of my personal comfort levels – and then pushed passed them. This was a novel with something to say, and Melamed’s voice carried far, loudly and still resonates in my head as I write this.

In Gather the Daughters, this island is no ordinary island, and these girls live no ordinary lifestyle. Cut off from the mainland (which they’ve been told has burned to the ground, riddled with disease, sin and destruction, never to be habitable again) they live in a dystopian world without realizing that they really don’t. The “ancestors” brought their people here as an escape, away from the laws and customs of the mainland, and built their own commandments (the Shalt-Nots) and customs for the people to abide by – customs which include no access to outside books or knowledge, a social hierarchy where men reign supreme and women are subservient in every possible way, and a land where fathers have a special relationship with their daughters…

In the midst of it all, a handful of girls have the wherewithal to question it all, and those who don’t suddenly disappear for speaking out band together to find answers…

The first thing I’ll say is that Gather the Daughters is not a read for the faint of heart, but it IS a book for readers who aren’t afraid to cross a few lines. Jennie Melamed has crafted a novel that both explores and speaks out for the victims of abuse with poeticism, grace and force. She tells their story, paints their woes and harnesses their pain to educate and lend them a voice. The Daughters will push you to your boundaries. It will make you uncomfortable, make you think, make you angry.

“She bit Garret Jacob badly when he tried to slide fingers over her breast in the night, waking to him cradling a bleeding palm and glaring at her. Embarrassed and guilty, she apologized and let him do whatever he wanted with her later – acts she was pretty sure the ancestors would have disapproved of.”

With this novel, Melamed addresses the effects of rape culture on its survivors and on its observers. But, it is so much more than that. Gather the Daughters is an exploration of cult mentality and the tools used on its subjects to maintain the status quo and power the cult forward, of patriarchal rule and oppression, of the burdens of womanhood, of the will we have to survive and of what happens when we lose that will and succumb to the influence of others. It is an exploration of the darkness within us all and of an extreme patriarchal system of oppression not unlike how many women live today.

“If everyone does it, it can’t be too bad, right?”

(I can only imagine someone said something similar just before drinking the Jonestown punch in ’78.)

From the very first page I was drawn in with one of the most haunting and arresting prologues I’ve read in a long time. Admittedly, there were times when the writing was too flowery in a way that took away from the poeticism of the novel rather than adding to it, so that what Melamed was trying to convey was nearly lost, but that never overshadowed the evocativeness of this atmosphere she painted for us. This world was complete. I felt it, lived it, was part of it, a difficult feat that Melamed surmounted with ease. Their world was all encompassing and the tension of their cult-like existence against the backdrop of the “Wastelands” was palpable. This novel started out of the gates with a bang garnishing an easy five stars, but the second half of the novel slowed a bit, while still offering morsels for thought, earning Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters a very strong four stars overall. ****

Goodreads   Twitter

Jennie Melamed JENNIE MELAMED is a psychiatric nurse practitioner who specializes in working with traumatized children. During her doctoral work at the University of Washington, she investigated anthropological, biological, and cultural aspects of child abuse. Melamed lives in Seattle with her husband and three Shiba Inus.