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Within the well-worn threads of fiction, there lies the capacity for the freshest silk, flowing and precious. Built from the same foundations as those that came before it, you’d be surprised at how strikingly new and lovely it spins into.

Akwaeke Emezi’s debut, FRESHWATER, is this silk, a slim novel so rooted in its lineage and yet so bright, putting thoughts together in new ways, crafting a devastating and exuberant work. One almost cannot believe that Emezi is using the words we are used to using, because she transmutes them into a story that, while accessible and often relatable, is entirely its own. She breathes new dimensions into language and story. You would be hard-pressed to find a reader, any reader, who could complete this book and fail to call it a masterpiece.

"FRESHWATER is simply, and unquestionably, an absolute masterpiece of a novel."

At the same time, while this is fiction --- gorgeous, flowing fiction --- it’s also categorized as an autobiographical novel. It’s lyric memoir told as a novel, one part of Emezi’s The Unblinding, a series of self-portraits that also includes a diptych of paintings and a collection of video art. That this book moves fluidly between genres is entirely fitting. It is a novel, a memoir or a set of memoirs. It is vivid prose, lucid poetry, remembrance, mythology, lived metaphysics.

This is a telling of a story of a person born “with one foot on the other side.” Ada has always been unusual. As a child, she was upsettable, unknownable and prone to violence. As she grows, the truth emerges to Ada that she is home to many disparate gods. Of Tamil and Igbo descent, raised in southern Nigeria, Ada knows certain names for who and what she is, and the gods within her name her and claim her in their own ways.

When Ada travels to America for college, an experience of trauma pushes some of her selves to the forefront, the rest back into the marble recesses of her mind. There is the we, the sisterbrothers, there from the beginning. There is Ashugara, fierce and defensive, who arose in the face of trauma, who sows harm. There is Saint Vincent. At different times, different gods wear Ada’s body. At different times, she lets them. Sometimes, she begs for them. Sometimes, she begs them to stop. The autobiographical novel carries us through Ada’s journey, and it is told through these alternating voices.

This is Emezi’s story, shot through with fiction. Truth and reimagining flow into and through each other here. She has woven them into a story to share with us, and it feels like a blessing. The book explores mental health, metaphysics, faith, and inter- and intra-personal relationships in glorious, astonishing and brutal ways. This is a paean to the self, to the selves.

FRESHWATER is simply, and unquestionably, an absolute masterpiece of a novel.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on February 23, 2018

by Akwaeke Emezi

  • Publication Date: December 18, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802128998
  • ISBN-13: 9780802128997