Freshwater Summary

Freshwater is a 2018 novel centered on protagonist Ada, a Nigerian college student whose body is inhabited by ogbanje, immortal children of the gods.

  • After a troubled childhood, Ada moves from Nigeria to Virginia to study biology. Her first college boyfriend, Soren, rapes her, leading to the birth of the ogbanje Asughara.
  • At the same time, an ogbanje called Saint Vincent arrives and encourages Ada to explore her masculine side. Asughara, meanwhile, encourages Ada toward self-harm and suicide.
  • Ultimately, Ada returns to Nigeria, where she is healed by a priest and gains a sense of wholeness.


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Last Updated on August 16, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1284

Ada, whose christened name means “the egg of a python,” is born on June 6 to parents Saachi and Saul in Umuahia, Nigeria. Within Ada’s body are ogbanje, children of the gods. Children born with ogbanje often don’t survive infancy; against the odds, Ada lives, but it is clear that she is going to go mad.

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In her childhood, Ada is violent: she screams and is moody. Rather than crawl, toddler Ada slithers like a serpent. When she is three, she encounters a python in the bathroom. Saul takes a machete and hacks the python to bits, but he has enacted a sacrifice that will keep Ada’s physical body alive while her interior self fractures into pieces.

As Ada grows up, she has nightmares, sensing the presence of the ogbanje. One December, as Ada celebrates the New Year, she is dancing at a masquerade ceremony when the ogbanje awaken and inhabit both the realm of the spirits and the realm of the physical world. As they realize that they are gods contained within a human body, they express unhappiness at being contained within a mortal form when they themselves are immortal.

Ada’s troubled childhood continues: she watches a truck strike her little sister, Añuli, and blames herself for failing to protect her sibling. Ada becomes “a precocious but easily bruised child, constantly pierced by the world.” Saachi begins to experience crippling anxiety; while with Añuli on a trip to Malaysia, she is offered a job in Saudi Arabia, which she accepts, leaving her children behind with Saul. Saul is a distant parent, and Saachi spends ten years away from her family, leaving behind her children, a sacrifice for which she will atone for the rest of her life.

After Saachi’s departure, Ada increasingly retreats into her mind, closer to the ogbanje, because she is looking for anyone who will pay her attention. In addition to her experiments with self-harm, she finds Yshwa, a Christ figure whose face shifts like a ghost. As Ada increasingly loses her sense of who she is, the “we” of her internal selves root more deeply into her mind, solidifying their hold on her.

When Ada is seventeen, she moves to a small town in Virginia to attend university, majoring in biology with the hope of becoming a veterinarian. The ogbanje are raging and Ada’s violent tendencies escalate. When Ada is eighteen, she meets a Danish boy named Soren. He begins calling her his girlfriend and reveals to her the traumatic events of his childhood. Like Ada, he can be angry and violent. Waking up one morning that May, she realizes that he has been raping her while she slept. The assault births Asughara, an identity that thrives on feeling rage and pain.

Asughara’s arrival heralds a dramatic change in Ada. She can be cold and calculating, sexually promiscuous and self-destructive, drinking and starving herself to experience the highs of pain. She uses men—often cruel and violent ones—for her own pleasure, feeding a bottomless hunger.

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Ada meets Ewan, a man whom she will eventually wed and then divorce. He has a girlfriend, so their relationship is one that is undefined, though each finds enjoyment, comfort, and the validation of being seen in the other.

When Asughara arrived in Ada, so, too, did another spirit whom Ada names Saint Vincent; he “[remains] in the marble of [Ada’s] mind because he wouldn’t survive her body.” Saint Vincent encourages Ada to explore the side of her that feels more masculine, for she has always liked being perceived as a boy, especially when she was a child. Saint Vincent also encourages Ada to explore her attraction to women, but Asughara quickly tells Ada to keep these attractions a secret.

Asughara is visited by her brothersisters, who warn her that she is staying too long in the human realm and needs to go back through the gates to the spiritual side where she belongs. Their visit deeply upsets Asughara, who finally forms a plan to help free Ada from her pain, keep her safe, and leave the human realm: she will convince Ada to commit suicide.

Ada begins looking up the symptoms she’s experiencing: the emotional instability and mood swings, the self-harm, the suicidal ideation. Asughara slowly begins to realize that Ada is trying to kill her, and they argue about why they hurt each other. Asughara allows Ada to see a therapist, but when she realizes that Ada has described her “voices” to the therapist, she stops Ada from continuing the sessions.

Ewan tells Ada that he loves her and has broken up with his girlfriend. He moves in with her, and they get engaged, then married, moving in together in an apartment in Brooklyn. Ada asks Asughara to leave her alone so she can give all of herself to Ewan, but Asughara doesn’t know how to do that, and Ewan begins to understand that Ada has “the core of her locked away.” He moves out, drops out of school, and then leaves the country.

Ada begins dating a woman named Donyen, and the self-harm and excessive drinking continue. When they break up, Ada starts seeing a man named Hassan, who is a capoeira teacher. One night, she has a fight with him, and the next morning, she finds herself staring at a prescription for painkillers and contemplating suicide. Asughara encourages Ada’s thinking, and Ada begins taking the pills. She has swallowed more than half of them when Hassan calls, and Ada tells him what she’s done. She then calls a friend, who calls 911, and police officers come to Ada’s apartment and take her to the hospital.

Asughara helps Ada convince the doctors that the suicide attempt wasn’t serious and that she shouldn’t be hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. Saachi, who knows Ada is seriously depressed and needs help, tries to intervene, but Ada cuts off Saachi’s contact with her doctors, leaving Saachi unable to take action.

After Ada’s suicide attempt, she has breast reduction surgery to lessen her feminine appearance. Ada feels “too feminine, too reproductive” in her body. Saint Vincent helps Ada begin binding her chest and dressing in a more masculine way.

Ada prays again to Yshwa and decides that her life is better with him in it. She begs Yshwa to make her stop hurting, but he reminds her that gods don’t have to be fair. Ada’s loneliness and sadness become even more profound.

Ada returns to Nigeria, where she meets a priest who helps figuratively break her open in order for her to put herself back together again. She tells him about the voices in her, and he works to draw Ada out from their midst. The ogbanje pull back, and Ada feels that she is finally freed from their overbearing shadow and able to fully occupy her own body.

Ada’s friend Malena encourages Ada to get to know her roots, and Ada realizes that she is tired after years of negotiating with the ogbanje. Ada prays to Ala, who helps Ada see that she is a snake, a being that can curve in on itself and form a circle, “the beginning that is the end.”

Ada submits to the voice of Ala and to the voices of the brothersisters that are encouraging her to return home. As the novel closes, Ada is making her way back to Umuahia, the place of her birth, feeling that she is “[her] others, we are one and we are many.” Finally, Ada feels optimistic about her future as she embraces both the mortal and divine aspects of herself.

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