Dark, Diversity, Edelweiss, Fiction, Illness, Loved-it, Magical realism, Other-cultures, Rising star, Women's

Mythological + #OwnVoices + Mental Health = Fascinating Novel!! Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

I cannot believe Freshwater is a debut novel. Akwaeke Emezi is a rising star, an incredible writer, and I hope to see many more masterpieces by her. Will I be re-reading this one? Oh, yeah – definitely. And you know what it means when I say I would reread a book.

Freshwater is about a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who has a fractured self – in all honesty, it’s more like quite a lot of selves all trapped in there. And I say trapped – because that’s precisely how it feels to all of them. Not all of it is apparent to Ada, but we, as a silent bystander, a listener of their story, get to see the whole picture. And in fact, Ada gets to have her say perhaps in only 2 chapters throughout the entire book – the rest is her other selves speaking. And her other selves aren’t, well… human. Her other selves are a collection of mythological powers, trapped in a human body. Unappeased and wreaking havoc.

Freshwater is a stunning novel, one that I dove into and couldn’t surface out of for a while. It’s like a pool of dark water that you don’t really even want to get out of. And I was sad when the book finished – despite it being quite a violent and shaking experience. I am not lying when I say I intend to read it again.

This Story Is What You Make Of It

The most incredible aspect of Freshwater is that there are two ways to read it: either as magical realism, or as stark naked reality. I chose to read it as magical realism. Keep that in mind when you read this review. And it’s not that things change based on how you read it – it’s that your understanding of the story changes. So let’s pause a moment here to consider how amazing a story must be, if it can have two layers like that. That’s partly why I want to reread it.

Understanding The Fractured Self

I don’t know if there are many novels with a main character who suffers a personality disorder, particularly – novels where a character like that isn’t just written off as ‘not quite all there’. Ada is portrayed as completely normal despite her problems, and in multiple instances it is stressed that she is sane, and that none of this is her fault. This is something that I would like to see more often in literature, when it comes to mental health.

While reading this, and knowing none of the author’s backstory, I kept wondering if this is how it really is for people with multiple personalities. I know I’m probably a bad reviewer for not looking this up and considering the book simply on its own, but regardless of whether it’s well researched or actually experienced by the author or someone close to them, I loved reading about the experiences of the main character because it helped me learn more about such personalities and what they go through. Don’t get me wrong – nothing that she goes through is even remotely rosy or beautiful. It’s all dark, messed up and very painful. But getting behind the eyes of such a person through fiction is why we should be reading books. It’s education in empathy and understanding. And that’s why I loved this.

The Mythology

As I mentioned, I chose to read Freshwater as more or less magical realism, so I went with the fact that Ada’s suffering comes from the fact that she is essentially multiple beings, born into one, and not given the gift of forgetting – being born aware. That was an amazing concept to wrap my mind around. Imagining how such dynamics would shape a person, affect their growth. Like a dark fairytale, where you can have your wish granted, but at a price you can’t even fathom – one cannot be a powerful, ageless being and not pay a price. Seeing and explaining mental health problems through the prism of demons and old gods might not always work in our reality, but it’s an incredible concept – how traumatic events can both be interpreted as a forming of a new personality branch, or as a surfacing of an ancient being in a person’s mind. This is a battle between the old, shamanistic worldview, and the modern scientific one.

There is a reason there is a two-headed snake on the cover. But I won’t spoil. Read the book!

Strangely? It’s Relatable

Maybe it should worry me that I could relate to a character who had life threatening mental illness? But I believe that you could as well. Even if just in little ways, it’s not hard to see how traumatic events can change you, branch out new traits in you, even if you’re ‘normal’. Maybe you won’t develop a new personality brach, but it’s easy to say you won’t be the same person as you were before the event. It was an incredible experience having these ideas put in my mind, ideas I’ve never pondered before.

The #OwnVoices

You might have noticed that I’m not talking about the #OwnVoices bit too much. Partly, it’s because I wanted my review to focus on the mental health bit (and I can’t confirm whether that part is #OwnVoices or not), and partly it’s because it’s not really my place to talk too much about the PoC part of #OwnVoices. But yes – it’s totally there. There is talk about race, about what it means to be from another place, to lose your roots. In fact, that’s the main theme – that you can only heal yourself, when you find your roots, know where you are from. The whole mythology bit is steeped in wonderful names, legends and religious lore of Nigeria. But I will not talk much cause I’m very uninformed! So forgive me and just experience it yourself. It’s well worth it.

But Beware Of The Triggers

Oh yeah, this book has triggers – loads of them. Nothing with these tough topics could be free of them – and this book has rape, suicide attempts, a lot of suicidal ideation, lots of violence, some of it contains blood etc., brutal accidents, drugs… You name it. Well, I don’t think it contains murder or animal abuse, but that’s about it. If you are sensitive, keep in mind that you can’t read this book without submersion. And it’s pretty dark waters.

Other Books You Might Like

I’m surprised that it wasn’t hard to find some recommendations that are connected in at least one way or another. Heart Berries is a memoir of a First Nations/Native American woman struggling with mental illness and her place in the world, In Case I Go is about a child who ends up being haunted by his grandfather’s spirit over old secrets of the past, also related to the indigenous – and this is similar both because of the ‘your roots’ themes, and the double personality, or someone else’s personality inhabiting your mind. An Unkindness of Ghosts doesn’t exactly have the personalities theme, but it has a lot to say about mental illness, and is both #OwnVoices and talks a lot about Black Culture. And The Gargoyle, perhaps the most different of all of these, also meshes magical realism with mental illness, and also talks about bodily harm.

Heart Berries: A Memoir   In Case I Go   An Unkindness of Ghosts   The Gargoyle

I thank Grove Press for giving me a free copy of the book in exchange to my honest opinion. You can buy the book here at Book Depository and buying using this link supports the blog.

Have you read Freshwater or any other novel about these really sensitive topics? Have you heard about it? What is some of the fiction or nonfiction you’ve read on having multiple personalities?

I’m Evelina and I try to blog about books that matter, with a bit of fun there too! Disability and equality will be topics you see a lot, but there’s also a lot of scifi, fantasy and… GIFs. I’m also the proud founder of #ARCsAnonymous.

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Charvi
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Ooh this books sounds fantastic! I’ll surely check it out 🙂

Jamie @ The Last Page
Guest

This book sounds marvelous! I was curious about it because of the cover and synopsis but wasn’t quite sure what to expect from it, but I like that it tackles mental illness. I’ll definitely see about reading this one soon if I can. <3 Great review as always!

Vee
Guest

This sounds like such an amazing read! I really liked In Case I go by Angie Abdou, so I will definitely be checking this book out!

Laura Thomas
Guest

You always leave me wanting the books you share! I spotted this the other day. Now I have to add it to my list!

justonemorepaige
Guest

This sounds amazing and I can’t wait to read it! I’m almost done with An Unkindness of Ghosts right now and it’s just…amazing.

Norrie
Guest

Sounds pretty interesting! I don’t know a lot about these personality disorders either and haven’t seen that many books about the topic before.

P.S. i think i need trigger warnings for snake pics… haha 😀

Emma
Guest

This sounds like an incredibly thought provoking book, but a hard one to read.

Fanna
Guest

This book sounds amazing! I’m a huge fan of literature that doesn’t shy away from tough topics even if it has to dive deep into the dark waters; there’s something ‘real’ in such stories. Now that I think of it, I haven’t read much of personality disorder focused books, either. But am glad I stumbled upon this review because freshwater is definitely going to my TBR <3 Even the Nigerian setting and POC characters are making me want to read this asap. Plus, the ownvoices aspect makes a book all the great! Loved this review, Evelina!

Lydia Tewkesbury
Guest

This sounds incredible from the perspective of content, but I’m also intrigued to see how the author pulled this off!

Also, it makes me so happy that you mentioned The Gargoyle. I read that book years ago and it absolutely blew my mind.

DJ (@MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape)
Guest

I would be very curious about the authors background too. When it comes to portaying personality disorders, media (both visual and written) have a tendency to romantaicize it. This does not sound like it went anywhere to the extent that the movie SPLIT did, and nor I am saying the author is romatizinign it at all – but just out of curiosity if the author has a physhcology degree or some type personal acquisitive to these disorders or if it was strictly research?

Jenn
Guest

This book sounds incredible! I like how it takes a serious tone with mental illness and shows Ada’s multiple personalities through the writing. This was such a great review and I’m definitely adding this book to my TBR list!

JJ @ This Dark Material
Guest

What a beautiful review 🙂 I’m so happy you enjoyed this, and a little rueful I passed over the chances to request an ARC of my own! Still, this sounds like a novel I’d absolutely love, especially with the two possible interpretations, so you’ve convinced me to get a copy of my own 🙂

Brian Joseph
Guest

Great review. The book sounds very original and very good. I also do not know much about the condition that this book concerns itself with but I would like to know more.

I love the fact that the protagonist is portrayed as sane despite the issues that she is facing.

Cricket
Guest

I’m usually drawn to books that have a character with an issue that society thinks will debilitate them and they are able to show how capable they are of living just fine. This sounds like a book I could completely immerse myself in and enjoy. I need to add this to my list.

Anna @ The Bibliotaph
Guest

This book looks so fascinating and wonderful. I love the mental health portrayal and especially that it’s stressed that she’s normal and that things aren’t her fault. That’s awesome.
I also love your inclusion of other similar reads. It helps give me a little more context for the book and whether or not I’d enjoy it.
Thanks for your review!

Daniela Ark
Guest

I love your enthusiasm for this book! This is one of the best of your reviews I’ve read so far. I like how you say the book can be read in two different ways. Only THAT makes it very interesting. And someone with multiple personalities that is presented as a sane person is definitely something to be loved.

Lily
Guest

never heard of this until now, interesting how it can be read with two different views in mind. Maybe If I ever get my hands on it I’ll keep that in mind. Either way, this book sounds really well written.

Tizzy Brown
Guest

This sounds absolutely fascinating! I’m always interested in books that portray mental health issues or personality disorders and I love magical realism. This really sounds up my street, thank you for describing it in such detail.

Lilyn George
Guest

Oh wow. This looks like it could be an amazing read. Magical realism doesn’t normally do it for me, but … I’m very, very tempted.

Fantastic review.

Andreea
Guest

This book and your review made me think of Among Others by Jo Walton, which can also be read as magical realism or it might all be in the protagonist’s head since it’s her diary.

Anna @ Read and Repeat
Guest

This book sounds so interesting! It also sounds too dark for what I need right now, but I definitely will put it on my TBR list for when I’m ready to tackle something that heavy.

Sim @ Flipping Through the Pages
Guest

Nice review! This sounds like an interesting read but I feel like this one would be a little tougher for me? But all the #ownvoices and mental issue stuff make it really amazing.

Tânia @MyLovelySecret
Guest

Thank you for a such a beautiful review Evelina. There’s still a lot of prejudice concerning mental illness. Although, nowadays, there are more talk about depression, sadly, other mental illnesses are shunned. So far, I’ve only read one book so about fractured personalities/trauma, Man in the Dark by Paul Auster, so I’m definitely adding this one to my wish-list.

Happy readings! 🙂
Tânia @MyLovelySecret

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[…] the books. This time I’m segmenting them! These are my three favorite ARCs from this month. Freshwater was just plain unbelievable – fresh, #ownvoices, strong, dark and honest. Brutal, I’d say. […]

Tori @ InToriLex
Guest

This is one of my most anticipated reads of the year! I cannot wait to pick it up. Your review has made it sound just the right kind of magical and awesome!

Tori @ In Tori Lex

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[…] Evelina’s review of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I recently got an eBook of freshwater which I can’t wait to read and her review made me even more excited about the book. You can read the review HERE […]

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[…] you’ve already heard me rave and rave and rave about Freshwater, so I think the message went through. But you also have to know that All Systems Red was BEYOND […]

Jenna @ Falling Letters
Guest

Wow, this sounds like an intense read! I appreciate your discussion of how there could be two ways to read this book.

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[…] and since our tastes are similar, I was eager to try this one out! You can check out her review here, but these are my […]