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.

65 thoughts on “Mythological + #OwnVoices + Mental Health = Fascinating Novel!! Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

  1. 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!
    Jamie @ The Last Page recently posted…Book Blogger Insider Book TagMy Profile

  2. 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!

    1. Wow. YOU’VE READ THAT TOO. Are we like bookish taste sisters?? Cause nobody ever reads some of these books I’ve read! Plus In Case I Go isn’t actually a very famous one! If you liked it, I think you should check out some of the other books I’ve loved, like this one. I am so excited that there’s someone who reads the same half-obscure books as I do 😀

      1. Maybe we are!! I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for the books you are reading and add them onto my TBR list!
        In Case I Go was a book I saw at my local library and I just decided to grab it on a whim! It was such a good decision! Have you read Sing, Unburied, Sing? It’s quite similar to In Case I Go and I really liked it!
        An Unkindness of Ghosts sounds absolutely fantastic, and I can’t wait to read it!
        Vee recently posted…The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda LovelaceMy Profile

        1. Wow, in a library? That’s great. I’m glad to hear that, cause it seems like this book isn’t so well known (sadly!) Nope, I haven’t read Sing, Unburied, Sing yet. Well, if you say so, I think I should 🙂

          1. I think based on your feelings for this book, you might like Sing, Unburied, Sing so hopefully I’m right! I really like my local library because they have a lot of interesting books. Plus, I’m from Canada and this is a book by a Canadian author so a lot of libraries want to support local authors!
            Vee recently posted…The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca RossMy Profile

          2. I doubt this book has been released in my country, so I probably won’t be able to get it at the library, but maybe one day there’s an Amazon ebook sale or something, so I can grab it 🙂

    1. YES! That book is so amazing. I’d love to see your review. If you’re liking An Unkindness so far, you should definitely get Freshwater too. I pretty much guarantee you’d like it too!

      1. Yes! I’ve been seeing Freshwater everywhere and definitely plan to read it. Thanks for the rec! And review to come…I’m slightly backlogged (of course), but I have a lot to say and can’t wait to get all my thoughts down.

  3. 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 😀

  4. 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!
    Fanna recently posted…Blog Tour – I Stop Somewhere by T.E. Carter [Review + Giveaway]My Profile

    1. You should ABSOLUTELY read this one!! It’s so, so good. I think you’d really enjoy it.
      You know, I opened my Goodreads newsletter today, and both this and Heart Berries was on the list with articles o.o I couldn’t believe it! I both reviewed them this month! When I requeested them maybe half a year ago on Edelweiss, there was no talk about it whatsoever, and I just got them because of the blurb, and thought they’d be small (you can never tell!) – books I pick with these topics turn out to be small usually. And now, they’re suddenly all over the place O_o I’m just so excited! And how do I get more of those kinds of books xD it’s never possible to tell beforehand!
      Thanks 🙂 glad you loved the review! I really can’t wait till you review this yourself. It was SUCH a great book.

      1. Omg! YES! I just opened my Goodreads newsletter today and that’s the first thing that hit me. I say Freshwater being recommended and I was like “ooohhh, wow, I know this book! Evelina loved it! I just read read the review!” and that doesn’t often happen you know. It’s always the super hyped books that make it to the articles or lists or the newsletter in general. But I’m happy I came across you because you definitely seem to have a great reading taste and you’ve made it to my blindly-trusting-their-opinions list. I CANNOT WAIT TO SOMEHOW GET THIS READ ASAP <3
        Fanna recently posted…Blog Tour – Secrets In Our Scars by Rebecca Trogner [Review + Giveaway]My Profile

        1. I know right, that’s also what I thought 😀 then I thought, hey, maybe they personalize those newsletters? Cause what are the odds, two of my recent reads in the same newsletter, that’s WILD xD

          Awwww thanks Fanna ^_^ I am sorry I haven’t visited your blog in forever, I’ve had a post open on my phone for days (your interview with Ayla), but I have just been working till 10PM every day and it’s just miserable. I hope you know I look forward to visiting your blog, possibly this evening 🙂 and that I appreciate you so much!

          And please – if you ever review Heart Berries or Freshwater, please spam me with the review links 🙂 I’m really curious what you will think!

  5. 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.

    1. The Gargoyle is a genius book 🙂 absolutely loved it. I think you’d like this one too then 🙂 yeah, this book was a masterpiece. I hope you get a chance to read it 🙂

        1. Ooh, that sounds interesting 🙂 I think it IS like that. It’s a subculture (or just a culture, I’m not good at naming stuff xD), after all. A very interesting one to read, as well.

  6. 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?
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    1. I haven’t seen that movie, but I don’t think the author was romanticizing it at all. It was portrayed very brutally, and not in a pretty way at all. Sometimes, it was total destruction of the character’s life and at her own hands as well. Actually, I don’t know – I haven’t looked anything up 😀 I kind of dislike looking things up about authors, a book for me is often a separate entity, so to say (also, I guess I’m lazy xD) I don’t think the author has a degree though. It’s half-fantasy, I think it was more meant to explore mythology and the demons of a particular religion (or tradition), and portray them as the cause of mental illness.

  7. 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!
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    1. Thank you, I’m so glad you liked it 🙂 it’s a very complicated book though, and not an easy read in many ways – but I was absolutely mesmerized by it. I hope you like it and I’ll be curious about your review 🙂

  8. 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 🙂

    1. Yes, I think you’d really like this 🙂 yeah, you can never know how awesome a book will be when you’re requesting it! I’m so surprised it made waves! When I requested it half a year ago, there was nothing, and I mean NOTHING. So you can never know, it’s sort of luck, I guess 🙂

  9. 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.
    Brian Joseph recently posted…Anthony Trollope’s Palliser SeriesMy Profile

  10. 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.

    1. Well, the character in this book could not be said to live and manage absolutely fine 😀 her life is kind of very hard and problematic… But she gets out of it by the end. It’s definitely worth a read 🙂 a very good book, and a very raw story.

  11. 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!
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    1. I always try to include similar reads, although I feel like sometimes I have just not read enough books for that, haha 😀 glad you like it. And this book was amazing! It’s so absolutely worth a read.

    1. Thank you 🙂 awwww man, thanks! That’s such an awesome thing to say! Thank you loads <3 I really, really enjoyed this book :) I'm glad I could do it justice, cause I always worry about that :D

    1. It was VERY well written! I don’t know if you’d like it though – it’s very dark, brutal and there’s loads of (not pretty) sexual content. It’s pretty raw! And as far as the reviews I see on your blog go, they are all about books I would categorize as much sweeter and cosier 🙂 not judging solely by your reviews or anything, but usually the books we review can give one some understanding of what the person likes – so I don’t know if this book wouldn’t be ‘meh’ for you. But I absolutely loved it, so if you don’t mind dark and raw, DEFINITELY check it out 🙂

  12. 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.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, that’s the thing though, magical realism oh so doesn’t work for me! It’s usually too sweet and so meh. But in this one? Dark and raw as it gets. Was a really good book 🙂
      Oh, BTW. Reading the Zanna Function now! Thanks to your post 🙂

    1. Oh, that’s so cool – and this isn’t the first time I’m hearing about that book either! Someone has already recommended it to me, and I have it marked to read on Goodreads 🙂

    1. Yeah, it’s definitely not an easy read, it’s very rough – but just the kind of book I like, because it was so vivid and dealt with important topics 🙂 I can easily understand how it might be a little too much for a lot of people, though.

  13. 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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    1. Aw, thanks, Tania! Yeah, that is true – it’s mostly depression that’s talked about, but that’s still good – it helps remove the taboo that things are being talked about at all. Plus, a lot of other mental illnesses somehow include depression as well – it’s more of an accompanying plight 🙁 so I guess it’s more common.

      Ooh! Paul Auster! I think I have to read this. Paul Auster is great!

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