The voices in your head

Paul Constant

April 17, 2018

Here's a never-fail prescription for finding a book to break through the reading doldrums: walk into a bookstore and ask a bookseller what they've absolutely loved lately.

Not so long ago, Third Place Books Managing Partner (and American Booksellers Association President) Robert Sindelar raved to me about Akwaeke Emezi's debut novel Freshwater. A few days after that, Elliott Bay Book Company reading coordinator Rick Simonson told me he'd fallen in love with Freshwater over a year ago in manuscript form. When one bookseller gushes about a new release, that should get your attention. When two booksellers bring it up independently of each other, you should pick up the book immediately.

Freshwater is a story of a young Nigerian woman who attends college in America. Ada is intelligent and brave and she has many personalities inside of her. Those personalities, united into one chorus named "We," narrate much of the beginning of the book.

Saul and Saachi had allowed the Ada to have a childhood that was, in a town full of death, unusually innocent. They didn't believe in interfering with the child's imagination, and so when the Ada finished one of her many books and decided that she could talk to animals, no one corrected her. "It did no harm to let her believe that," Saul said, and the Ada continued to believe wildly, in Yshwa and fairies and pixies living in the flame of forest blossoms. She believed that the top of the plumeria tree in the backyard could be a portal to another world, and that all magic was stored outside in leaves and bark and grass and flowers. These things that she believed in meant that, although she did not know it yet, she could believe in us.

Some of Ada's most self-destructive traits manifest in the other personalities. Ada takes part in more and more risky behavior like casual sex and cutting ("The skin sighed apart and there was a thin line of white before it blushed into furious red wetness.") and as she does, her personalities become more acute. They take on names and seize control of the body for long periods of time.

One of the personalities names herself Asughara, and she comes out, most often, when Ada has sex.

There was only me. I expanded against the walls, filling it up and blocking her out completely. She was gone. She might as well have been dead. I was powerful and I was mad, he could not touch me no matter how hard he pushed into her body, he could definitely never touch her. I was here. I was everything. I was everywhere. And so I smiled at him, using only Ada's mouth and teeth.

"She wasn't sure we were real, but nothing about us felt false," Asughara says. Is this a story of multiple personality disorder? Or is something else going on here? Emezi incorporates Nigerian mythology and Western religion into Freshwater, and the voices refer to their own divine inspiration. They believe that they are a sort of pantheon, living in a marble heaven in Ada's head.

These voices in Freshwater - the chorus of personalities - should feel familiar to anyone who spends a lot of time lost in books. What is reading, but inviting another voice to take up residence in your head? Emezi's voice is hypnotic and powerful and imaginative, leaving the reader unsure of what in the story is real and what is not.

Freshwater at times feels a little too unmoored from reality. Some scenes lack a sense of place or a narrative thrust. In those parts of the book, the reader is left floating in a sea of language which sounds pretty, but which doesn't seem to be actively describing anything. But then something vivid and clear happens - Asughara turns the tables on another domineering man with her unbridled sexuality, say - and Emezi's prose calls the reader to attention.

Freshwater embeds you deep into Ada's mind, demanding that you feel what this young woman feels, that you see the world the way she does. It is not an easy experience; it's a story of trauma and violence and heartbreak. But it's also a story of survival and strength and of coming to terms with what it means to survive.

And maybe most important of all, it's a story that will remind you of the importance of reading. In a time in which you can stream any number of guilty pleasures online at any moment of any day, Freshwater will remind you that some stories can only be told in a book, that reading - unlike other storytelling media - can actually change the way you perceive the world in a literal sense.

So if it's been a while since you've read a book that subsumed your experience, that reminded you to crawl outside yourself, you need to give Freshwater a try. In a world crammed to the heavens with unnecessary books, this is a book that demands to exist as a book. If you're sick of spring showers and the relentless terrors of the news and the exhausting prospect of reading James Comey's memoirs, you should listen to the professional book-lovers among us - the booksellers - and take a long, slow swim in Freshwater to remind yourself why you love reading in the first place.

Books in this review:
  • Freshwater
    by Akwaeke Emezi

    February 13, 2018
    232 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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