“The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.”
Rarely do I come across a work that screams, “YOU WILL LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT ME,” the way Freshwater shouted from the proverbial book stacks. It’s taken me awhile to get to this review, simply because I found the book so indescribably powerful. It’s fierce, ferocious, ethereal, gritty, and magical–all at once.
Ada, a troubled Nigerian girl born “with one foot on the other side,” is not a Nigerian girl at all. She’s not a human, but a god in a human’s body. Or rather, she is several.
In Freshwater’s mythology, the gate to the otherworld did not close when Ada joined this world, and as such she is plagued (or, perhaps, blessed?) to share her life with the gods who slip through with her. We join them all on this journey–notably often narrated through the lens of the brothersisters themselves–as Ada navigates first Nigeria, then the United States.
“By the time she (our body) struggled out into the world, slick and louder than a village of storms, the gates were left open. We should have been anchored in her by then, asleep inside her membranes and synched with her mind. That would have been the safest way. But since the gates were open, not closed against remembrance, we became confused. We were at once old and newborn. We were her and yet not. We were not conscious but we were alive—in fact, the main problem was that we were a distinct WE instead of being fully and just HER.”
The reason this book resonated with me so, is that it deeply entangles the magic and mythology of Ada’s Igbo people with western-perceived mental illnesses. From a psychological lens, Ada’s mind is fractured as a result of the traumas she endures, much like someone with dissociative identity disorder. What is born through her pain are the protective personalities of the Ogbanje (godlike Igbo spirits).
But this story argues that the Ogbanje were born alongside her (making Ada a sort of changeling), and only emerge to take control when Ada cannot lead them (and how could she? She’s just a human girl). Asughara, the most prominent and angry of the Ogbanje, demands to be returned to the spirit world. As such, she continually puts Ada in danger, seeking opportunities to slip from this realm of pain to the one where they truly belong.
What follows is an introspective look at Ada’s codependent, symbiotic relationship with the spirits that occupy her body. Here, the exploration of sexual expression, gender identity, religion, suicide, and trauma is so fluidly navigated that the reader cannot separate these things from the Ada we witness. We are, much like the Ognabje and Ada herself, watching distantly through Ada’s eyes.
I won’t spoil the entire thing, but I will say that I found Freshwater profoundly inspiring as a writer. What Emezi has accomplished in this work is a viscerally poetic work of pure magic, and I can’t WAIT to read their other novels.