Review: 'Freshwater' envelopes you from the start

“How do you survive when they place a god inside your body?” This is the question at the heart of Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, “Freshwater,” out next month from Grove Atlantic. Emezi has established herself as young writer to watch with an engrossing tale of identity, mental illness and spirituality.

Set in Nigeria, the United States and the spirit world, “Freshwater” is the story of Ada, a Nigerian girl who was born ogbanje: When “the transitions is made from spirit to the flesh,” the gates to the spirit world should then close. “It’s a kindness,” the spirits explain. “It would be cruel not to.” But in Ada’s case “perhaps the gods forgot.”

Instead of becoming Ada, the spirits remained distinct in their own identities. She is occupied, then, by a chorus of gods with ambitions and desires of their own. And while in childhood Ada finds ways to balance the spirits with her own self, that changes when she leaves Nigeria for college in Virginia and suffers a horrific sexual assault. She then slides into the protection of the gods and lets one, the lustful Asughara, take over — with disastrous results.

After a failed marriage, Ada returns to a childhood release — cutting — in an attempt to soothe the spirits, but Asughara and the rest are unsated. Keen to leave this existence and return to the spirit world fully, Asughara pushes Ada toward suicide. That results in a page-turning final showdown.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in this novel, there is, but Emezi’s careful structuring and poetic language provides a pleasing balance to keep us stabilized as we reach toward higher planes. Reading “Freshwater,” then, is akin to letting oneself over to a luminous experience; we are enveloped fully from page one, and leave the novel feeling transformed. Not bad for a debut.

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