When Ada was born, she did not come into the world alone. She was accompanied by a group of spirit/gods, or ogbanje. These spirits were largely silent, but they had an influence that grew over time. In Akwaeke Emezi’s novel, they speak as a group about those years:
We made ourselves big and strong for the Ada, we tried to, because she was solidifying into something lost and bereft. We were still very weak, as newborns often are, but we were determined to spring into sentience, to drag ourself upright, clawing grips into the sides of her mind. We could not have done it if she was not the type of child that she was, ready to believe in anything.
When Ada gets older and leaves Nigeria and attend college in America, the spirits become louder, with one of them, Asughara, taking on a sort of protective role, shielding Ada after she is sexually assaulted. Over time, the spirits and Ada develop arrangements among themselves that shift as Ada’s needs change. Sometimes they get along well, but sometimes Ada fights them. Sometimes they seem like protectors, and at other times they seem like the source of Ada’s problems.
Although I’m not familiar with the Igbo spirituality that fills this novel, and I’m sure I missed some of the layers of meaning as a result, I found this a fascinating look into what it must feel like to struggle with mental illness (at least, with particular forms of it). Ada is both in control and not, her mind is both her enemy and her friend. The spirits drive her to self-destructive behavior, but she doesn’t always know she’s doing it. They stand by when she takes deliberate steps to hurt herself, but they keep her from experiencing certain traumas.
The book also gets into questions of identity, as Ada tries to figure out what qualities constitute her true self. Her gender expression evolves, as does her spirituality. How these evolutions tie into the presence of the ogbanje is not entirely clear, which I thought was wise. All of these elements come together to form a person, but one element isn’t necessarily the source of the other.
For me, the lack of clarity is part of what makes the book so interesting. Emezi doesn’t present a clear-cut view of any of these aspects of Ada’s life. Much of the book is narrated by spirits we perhaps shouldn’t trust, and, when Ada speaks, it’s not clear to what degree she understands what’s happening to her. There are no obvious answers, but there is hope. By the end of the book, there’s reason to believe that Ada has turned a corner. What her new direction will ultimately mean is unclear, but that feels right, too. This is a book about the eternal mysteries of the self, and that’s not a mystery that’s easily solved.