Akwaeke Emezi's Freshwater is a coming-of-age story about a Nigerian woman named Ada whose body is sort of a Grand Central Station for minor gods. She's an Ọgbanje, an Igbo spiritual being with access to "the other side," which means the other side has access to her as well.
After a childhood full of pain (there's a bad car wreck), suffering (her family life is rough), and sublimity (there's gods afoot!), Ada's family sends her off to Virginia for college. While in the States, the godlings rush into her and begin to assert themselves in her life more forcefully, taking over her body and getting it in all kinds of trouble. For the most part, it's these gods who tell Ada's story of sex, self-harm, and survival.
My brain immediately calls for the check when authors adopt serious tones and turn to spiritual realms as a way of thinking through anything whatsoever. But Emezi's spirits are mostly "unforgiving, petty, [and] vindictive"—which keeps things interesting. There's very little in the way of boring pronouncements from on high here. These creatures are deviant and divine. They're sexual and spiritual. They're protectors as much as they are beings that require protection.
Four main spirits constitute Ada's personal pantheon. A chaotically neutral, gender fluid spirit named "We" claims Ada's body early on. A god named Asughara—"a cruel and ruthless" spirit who is also extremely powerful and occasionally funny—shields Ada from the pains and pleasures of sex. Most of the novel is about Ada's relationships (and related traumas) involving men and women, so we hear from Asughara a lot. A horny male spirit named Saint Vincent also hangs out in Ada's body. He facilitates the sexual experiences she has with women and balances out Asughara's femme fatale energy with his dreamy masculine energy.
Then there's Yshwa (aka Jesus), a steadfast god with a "half-loving, half-sad face" that constantly shifts in appearance. He attempts, as he always does, to convince Ada and the rest of the spirits to embrace Love for His sake, despite the cruel world and the cruel people who live in it.
Throughout the book, Emezi regularly unleashes vivid sentences designed to put skin, bones, and muscle on her spiritual beings. Sometimes the serious tone of the spirits descends into self- seriousness, though, which allows some eye-roll-inducing non-profundities to slip into Emezi's prose. But when she's on, Emezi's writing can make you feel like you're watching a gorgeous cutscene in a very awesome video game.
When I see the spirits as cool metaphors for the multiplicity of selves that shuffle to the fore and aft of human consciousness, I can get over my knee-jerk rejection of the paranormal and try to sort through what Emezi's saying about the disjunctive and deeply strange experience of being a human being. The idea of a "self" is just as immaterial as the idea of a spirit, after all.
Anyone whose inner crystals begin to glow at any suggestion of pan-mysticism—or anyone who's interested in reading a good writer exploring spiritual ways of processing traumatic experiences and journeying toward self-discovery—should light some candles, lay a yoga mat down in their liminal space, and give this one a spin.