Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Although Ada gets the chance to put her side of the story occasionally, most of the novel is narrated by others in her life. Who are these others who seem keen to protect her, but are equally likely to do her harm? That’s where Akwaeke Emezi’s debut departs from the familiar terrain.
Ada shares her mind and body with ogbanje spirits, offspring of the serpent god Ala who visited her as a very young child. Disdainful of humans, these spirits can be playful but malicious, prizing their own survival above all else. They induce Ada to lacerate her arms, to submit to breast-reduction surgery, to overdose on painkillers and engage in violent sex.
Naturally, Ada is ambivalent towards the voices within her; part of her and yet not. She’d be lonely without them but do they, as they insist, protect her from madness or are they proof she’s mad? She consults a therapist, researches diagnoses, spends a night on a psychiatric ward, but her spirits are suspicious of mental health services and she doesn’t engage.
And maybe they’re right in steering her away from mental health services: as Ada gradually accommodates to them, it’s the spiritual interpretation that works for her. But not for this reader! Because of its roots in an unfamiliar culture, and also because the author gives this perspective a larger portion of the narrative, I grappled with the spiritual formulation longer than felt comfortable, so that I enjoyed this novel less than I might have done if I had “allowed” myself to read it through a psychological lens from the start.
Ada’s early emotional neglect, the spirit Asughara’s genesis at the moment she’s raped, and this spirit’s subsequent function in enabling Ada to tolerate sex by switching off, as well as some additional childhood abuse that comes to light later in the novel suggests dissociative identity disorder; I deeply admire Freshwater as a rare example of how this disabling condition is experienced from the inside. But I wouldn’t want to privilege psychological/psychiatric perspective above others that work for the individual. According to the blurb, Ada’s various selves are “based in the author’s realities” and this highly-praised novel is thus testament to the value of the spiritual perspective to Akwaeke Emezi herself. Thanks to Faber and Faber for my review copy.
Killing Hapless Ally by Anna Vaught
No-one else until she discovers Hapless Ally, a more palatable alter ego, a false self to hide behind. And then there’s Frida from Abba to raise her spirits when she’s down, and a whole host of other imaginary friends, mostly from the worlds of literature and entertainment, she collects over the years.
Sadly they’re not enough to banish the sense of guilt and worthlessness, or the unfounded belief she is responsible for a child’s death, and the deaths of her parents too. And Hapless Ally, her erstwhile saviour, aligns herself with her dead mother and becomes more of a persecutor than the protector she was born to be.
Alison lacerates her arms, swallows too many pills and dissolves, intermittently, into a depressive funk. Yet through all this she gets a Cambridge degree, goes backpacking in India (making the distinction, as in my second novel, Underneath, between travelling to and running from), marries a man who genuinely loves her, works as a teacher, acquires a clutch of real-world supportive friends and brings up three sons.
While I’d have welcomed a little more of this external reality, Anna Vaught’s focus is Alison’s persecutory inner world. And her eventual release from it by killing Hapless Ally egged on by Drs Hook and Crook from the community mental health team.
Alison has had a few abortive therapies before she meets clinical psychologist Dr Crook and cognitive analytic therapy (the first time I’ve encountered this model adopted by a fictional therapist). Unlike some of her previous therapists, Dr Crook is intellectually curious, authoritative but never authoritarian and collaborative in her approach. Furthermore, unlike Dr Anschluss (who, instructing without explaining or containing, appears to enact the withholding dynamic reminiscent of Alison’s mother, despite being an advocate of attachment theory herself), Dr Crook draws on theory as a practical tool. Unlike the unfortunate CPN delivering manualised CBT, who makes punctuation and homophone spelling errors when writing on the chart, or the other CPN who offloads his own personal issues when he visits Alison and her husband at home to carry out carer’s assessment, Dr Crook finally makes it safe for Alison to adopt the patient role. Here at last is the relationship she was denied as an infant: a carer she can be herself with, someone for whom she needn’t be responsible, someone she doesn’t have to protect. With so many ineffective therapists in novels, it’s heartening to meet one who gets it right, especially a member of my own former profession.
Although the topic of Anna Vaught’s debut novel is human misery, the voice is endearingly quirky and the tone upbeat, so the reader is rooting for Alison right from the start. But I should acknowledge that I was already biased in her favour, having connected with the author on Twitter before checking out her book. (I think it began with our connecting some political fandango to the craziness of psychiatric institutions.)
Overall, Killing Hapless Ally is a story of human resilience: an insight into the turbulence that can lurk beneath the face we show the world and a woman’s journey to conquer her demons. Published by Patrician Press, I bought my own copy.
There are a few stories about mental disturbance in my forthcoming short story collection, Becoming Someone, including the one from which the quote below is taken. Sign up to my email newsletter before November 19th for a chance to win a signed paperback copy.