Freshwater is one of those books that leaves you thinking hard about the concept of self. Who are you truly and how much control do you have over what this concept of you is? The book is autobiographical which gives it much more significance when processing this and other concepts it introduces.
In the story, we follow the story the author, Akwaeke Emezi’s alias from their birth in Nigeria, along with the different spirits/gods that came along during the birth process to co-occupy their mind and body. It takes us through their childhood and family dynamics with parents from different parts of the world, to the move to America for further education, alone and navigating the social dynamics of that society while playing host to gods caged within you.
The book, the way I interpreted it while reading, is an exploration of what it means for spirits to occupy a human body – which has its limitations. How does that dynamic work? How do all these consciousnesses co-exist and have their varying interests and desires met? What toll does this take on the human body, mind and mental health? The short answer is – a very heavy toll.
There is a significant sub-theme of sexuality and dating influenced by a foundation of sexual trauma. The messiness of it all with a spiritual aspect added in is what carries the story and constantly reminds you of how complicated relationships and their motivations can be. If you are very ‘traditional’ about this kind of thing, you probably want to stay away from this book or put aside your beliefs before opening the book.
Same applies if you are conservative about religion. Our main characters spiritual existence is decidedly rooted in Igbo belief systems and isn’t trying saturate them for other audiences. As someone that’s developing an interest in decolonising my view of African spirituality, this approach made me very happy. Jesus did make an appearance but as a side character.
Akweake is becoming an increasingly influential African literary voice and this, their debut novel, was a resounding introduction to their unique perspective and storytelling prowess. They have gone on to release a children’s book and have a new novel out that made the New York Times bestsellers list so if you find Freshwater fascinating, be sure to check out their other works as well.