Wellcome Book Prize Longlist: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

“This is all, ultimately, a litany of madness—the colors of it, the sounds it makes in heavy nights, the chirping of it across the shoulder of the morning.”

Magic realism and mental illness fuel a swirl of disorienting but lyrical prose in this debut novel by a Nigerian–Tamil writer. Much of the story is told by the ọgbanje (an Igbo term for evil spirits) inhabiting Ada’s head: initially we have the first person plural voice of “Smoke” and “Shadow,” who deem “the Ada” a daughter of the python goddess Ala and narrate her growing-up years in Nigeria; later we get a first-person account from Asụghara, who calls herself “a child of trauma” and leads Ada into promiscuity and drinking when she is attending college in Virginia.

The unusual choice of narrators links Freshwater to other notable works of Nigerian literature: a spirit child relates Ben Okri’s Booker Prize-winning 1991 novel, The Famished Road, while Chigozie Obioma’s brand-new novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is from the perspective of the main character’s chi, or life force. Emezi also contrasts indigenous belief with Christianity through Ada’s troubled relationship with “Yshwa” or “the christ.”

These spirits are parasitic and have their own agenda, yet express fondness for their hostess. “The Ada should have been nothing more than a pawn, a construct of bone and blood and muscle … But we had a loyalty to her, our little container.” So it’s with genuine pity that they document Ada’s many troubles, starting with her mother’s departure for a mental hospital and then for a job in Saudi Arabia, and continuing on through Ada’s cutting, anorexia and sexual abuse by a boyfriend. Late on in the book, Emezi also introduces gender dysphoria that causes Ada to get breast reduction surgery; to me, this felt like one complication too many.

The U.S. cover

From what I can glean from the Acknowledgments, it seems Ada’s life story might mirror Emezi’s own – at the very least, a feeling of being occupied by multiple personalities. It’s a striking book with vivid scenes and imagery, but I wanted more of Ada’s own voice, which only appears in a few brief sections totalling about six pages. The conflation of the abstract and the concrete didn’t quite work for me, and the whole is pretty melodramatic. Although I didn’t enjoy this as much as some other inside-madness tales I’ve read (such as Die, My Love and Everything Here Is Beautiful), I can admire the attempt to convey the reality of mental illness in a creative way.

My rating:


My gut feeling: I’ve only gotten to two of the five novels longlisted for the Prize, so it’s difficult to say what from the fiction is strong enough to make it through to the shortlist. Of the two, though, I think Sight would be more likely to advance than Freshwater.

Do you think this is a novel that you’d like to read?


Longlist strategy:

  • I’m about one-fifth of the way through Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning, which I plan to review in early March.
  • I’ve also been sent review copies of The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and look forward to reading them, though I might not manage to before the shortlist announcement.
  • I’ve placed a library hold on Murmur by Will Eaves; if it arrives in time, I’ll try to read it before the shortlist announcement, since it’s fairly short.
  • Barring these, there are only two remaining books that I haven’t read and don’t have access to: Astroturf and Polio. I’ll only read these if they make the shortlist.


The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, March 19th, and the winner will be revealed on Wednesday, May 1st.

We plan to choose our own shortlist to announce on Friday, March 15th. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews and predictions.

27 thoughts on “Wellcome Book Prize Longlist: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

  1. I really admire what Emezi is trying to do here, but I suspect I’d really struggle with this one. It sounds a bit like Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, which also deals with double selves and Nigerian folklore, but I think I’d get really impatient with the multiple personalities, as I did in Oyeyemi’s novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I saw you say that you struggle with books depicting a compromised mental state, I knew Freshwater wouldn’t be for you! However, it’s fairly short and nicely written, so if it makes the shortlist it at least shouldn’t take you too long to read.

      I haven’t read any Oyeyemi — is there another book by her that you like and would recommend?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve only read Boy, Snow, Bird otherwise, and had issues with that as well! I do think she’s a very good writer though, and you may get on better with her than I did. I’ve heard good things about White is for Witching and Mr Fox.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I was just going to ask if you had read it because it didn’t seem to be a book you’d pick up. I bought my copy because of the first sentence. 🙂 *waves to Karen*


  2. It’s always a challenge to gather/source all the books on a prizelist. At the beginning, when you’re pretty sure they’re all going to be available at some point, it’s still fun. For me, after that, it reaches a point where I panic (when I’m planning to read a list completely – if I haven’t made that decision I’m content to wait and see)! And once you’ve invested so much time in reading nearly all of them, it seems to become that much more important to complete the project! 🙂 Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m pretty confident that any others I’m scrambling for the publishers would be willing to send out quickly. They should be used to, and delighted by, an uptick in requests after a prize listing.


      1. Sometimes, here, notoriety has the opposite effect, whether because the initial print-run did not allow for additional interest (and now those copies are routed to stores instead because there are only a limited number remaining and obviously sales would be a priority) or because this other avenue of publicity exists and a lot of online writers don’t cover all the books they request so it’s not a sure thing from the publisher’s pov, which I do understand.


  3. Absolutely loved it, this was the one title I really wanted to read from the long list and I really admired that that author chose to keep Ada relatively quiet so that we as readers could have greater empathy for what it must be like to have these kind of voices awaken in your mind and subvert your behaviour. I thought it was brilliantly portrayed and there was something pure about not seeing it through the lens of madness or a labelled ‘mental health’ issue.

    There are many people who live today with voices who aren’t mad, who have come to understand why they are there, what invited them in and how to live with them and I find it a fascinating subject to have been tackled by an author who has this as their day to day reality and whose storytelling comes through the context of another cultural experience which adds yet another narrative spin on it. I really hope it gets shortlisted, I think it’s an astounding work of fiction, albeit inspired by the authors own experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I hadn’t seen many reviews prior to the Women’s Prize shortlisting, but they are beginning to happen now and the conversation is indeed thought-provoking and hits many of the aspects that make a worthy prize winner. The discussion would be interesting to listen in on!


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