Print Edition - 2019-03-09  |  On Saturday

The centre cannot hold

  • Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is bumpy and uneven, coming off as pretentious and gimmicky
- Richa Bhattarai

Mar 9, 2019-

Forgive us, we sound scattered,” says a spirit in Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, Freshwater.

It is as if the book is asking forgiveness for its random and disjointed but wild flashes of brilliance that simply refuse to stitch themselves together into a seamless pattern.

The spirits might disagree with this opinion, they might rebel. For they often are willful in the novel, stretching the plot and characters this way and that. Their constant whirring and clicking makes it almost impossible to follow the storyline, which holds gentle undulation within all its turmoil.  

The best things first: Freshwater is interestingly angled, innovative, and unique. Even among a litany of creations talking about the ogbanje—an evil spirit residing in a child—it holds its own. One of the most widely-read descriptions of the ogbanje, a child born and reborn, often plunging its family into misfortune, is Ben Okri’s The Famished Earth. For brief moments, Emezi makes it possible even to forget the novelty of that work. For in this novel, it is not only the ogbanje that call us to them. The spirits snarl at us and each other, they growl and smash—revealing to everyone the evil and good, the Apollonian and Dionysian, the saviour and the victim. They hold a promise irresistible to a mere human reader.

So this particular ogbanje, Ada, is born in the human world to loving parents who manage to keep her alive, even as the spirits wrestle within her and turn her from a helpless baby one instant to a sultry witch the next.

A closer reading reveals that the spirits within Ada, herself the daughter of the mother serpent Ala, are manifestations of her own sexual curiosities. This tender, often confused and cautious questioning of the masculine and feminine, of gender roles and non-conformity, is both painful and strength-building to witness. As maleness tugs at the adolescent from one end and womanhood from the other, Ada represents perfectly just how difficult it is to straddle two worlds, unsure of where one belongs.

Emezi, who identifies neither as man or woman, has maintained that this coming-of-age tale is fashioned on their own experiences, as they clutched at the sexual identities parceled out to them, trying to make sense of their boundaries, and failing to do so.

For this, and just this alone, the novel ought to be read. As testament to the soul-wrecking botheration and complications a person is subject to in their search of a coveted identity, which the rest of humanity takes for granted. Reading this makes you acutely aware of the importance of diversity. How vital it is in every sphere, but most particularly in the arts and literature. It brings in distinct voices, marvelous ideas, and supremely necessary interrogations. Young people, aching for validation and representations of their jumbled self, will find plenty of comfort and solace here. As will anyone experiencing mental illness, or merely the burden of overthinking.

Ada goes through an entire range—self-harm, dual personality, identity crisis, sex as a tool for self-worth and validation, suicidal tendencies. It is frightening to travel along with this strange, unpredictable creature, but sobering to realise just how easy it is for anyone to spiral into this crazy cycle of unbecoming.

As modern as the novel is, it is also ancient. it revisits gods and monsters, and Igbo sayings, beliefs, myths and heritage. Emezi sprinkles these elements throughout. At times, they land with grace, and other times, with a jarring and resounding crash. This turning back to the past, a revelation of history, is mostly charming, and sometimes simply incongruous. Either way, it is a sincere attempt on the author’s part to take inspiration from his roots.

The trouble is, these roots might seem firm and healthy, but the blooms that shoot up do not attest to their vibrancy. They’re pale and distorted, as though a swift wind would blow them away, and each is aggravatingly disconnected and detached from the other.

Freshwater is a slim work, but difficult to follow. This is not necessarily a liability—an arduous hike can lead to a fiery sunrise—but here, we are met with a watery glow at best. The narrator’s ever-changing tones and characters prevent readers from soaking themselves into the creation. For, readers are never sure of who is speaking, from where, and whom they are addressing. This constant haranguing between ‘we’, Asaghura’ and ‘Saint Vincent’ creates flaky, unrelatable narrators.

The narration is bumpy and uneven, coming off as pretentious and gimmicky, instead of subtle and mysterious as is certainly intended. Happenings in the novel, too, are quite repetitive. They just involve a lot of sex with different sexes and the spirits clamouring for attention and superiority. While all this could be accepted, the narrator adopts a condescending, arrogant, pseudo-godlike aura that is unpleasant and unappealing. There are heartfelt attempts to lay out the angst and turmoil of coming to terms with a unique identity. It stands like an abstract painting, brilliantly envisioned, but ends up as an obscure mush of sparks and shades.

The self-exploration, fresh and fascinating at first, morphs into a rambling and stale account that verges on the boring. When Ada admits that the ‘core of her is locked away in a dark ocean,’ she is also perhaps making a parallel to the crux of the novel, which is tucked away someplace else, and never appears in its entirety.

At the very end, with Ada preening and simpering, the novel dissolves into a privileged and often whiny account that is in awe of one’s own superiority and brilliance—me, me, me. This narcissism is inconsistent with the adventure-seeking, adventurous, rebellious development of character.

In fact, very few characters are given enough space to flourish, limiting themselves to cutout figures. Even more surprisingly, while the python, the flesh form of the God, is described attractively, other myths and beliefs skip the details, befuddling the reader.

The narrator is immersed in their own relationship with the divine, seeking purgation and redemption, so that the tale transforms itself into a religious paean excluding readers. The efforts to distance oneself from past aberrations is the only human trait readers might latch on to.

With issues so fluid and enthralling, Ezemi could have achieved so much more in furthering her cause. Instead, the writing turns cloyingly inward, rendering itself secretive and faraway, as if the author is enjoying a joke at the reader’s expense.

“The whole is greater than the individual,” the novel states philosophically towards the end. This might be true, but the promise of this particular novel does not add up to a greater whole.

Freshwater

Author: Akwaeke Emezi

Pages: 229

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Price: Rs 800

Published: 09-03-2019 09:49

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