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In “Like Water Like Sea”, Olumide Popoola Offers an Exploration of Contemporary Human Experiences

In “Like Water Like Sea”, Olumide Popoola Offers an Exploration of Contemporary Human Experiences

Like Water Like Sea review - Olumide Popoola - Afrocritik

Like Water Like Sea explores various aspects of friendship, relationships, and gender. Through her characters, Popoola normalises and subtly educates her readers about the fluidity in sexuality…

By Joy Chukwujindu

The enigmatic title of Olumide Popoola’s second novel, Like Water Like Sea, had me hooked from the instant I settled into it. As I read through the pages of this contemporary literary fiction, I was eager to complete it in one sitting, but it turned out to be three. Like Water Like Sea is indeed a memorable addition to the growing canon of queer literature, which is still striving to find its audience in African communities, particularly in countries where queer relationships are criminalised. 

Within moments of meeting Nia, the protagonist, we quickly realise she is going through a rough patch. This realisation would make one eager to flip through the pages to see where her journey leads. Set in London, the novel follows the 28-year-old herbal medicine practitioner grappling with the loss of her older sister Johari, who died by suicide. Nia’s grief is shared by those around her, including her mother, Susu, who grapples with bipolar disorder; her father, Ben, a writer-journalist attempting to rebuild his life; and Melvin, Johari’s closest friend and Nia’s first love from her teenage years. Against this melancholic backdrop are other exciting characters featured. We meet the sensational couple, Crystal and Rahul, who form an unexpectedly intimate relationship with Nia, and the romantic Temi who I consider an early breath of fresh air in the novel. 

Nia’s story is narrated from her teenage years till her 50th birthday. In her early teens, she appeared to live in the shadows of Johari, and we see her struggle to find herself in her late 20s through her failed relationships while dealing with grief. In her late 30s, we see her deal with jealousy, find love again, and detach from a friendship that no longer served her. Although she shares similar emotions now in middle age, she has a better understanding of the events that have occurred throughout her life. 

Like Water Like Sea explores various aspects of friendship, relationships, and gender. Through her characters, Popoola normalises and subtly educates her readers about the fluidity in sexuality; from the heterosexual relationship between Susu and Ben, and Crystal and Rahul, to the lesbian relationship between Nia and Temi, and the pansexual relationship between Nia and Be.  Be is also an intriguing character whose pronouns “they” and “them” are consistently used throughout the novel. For readers unfamiliar with these pronouns in referring to a singular person, this might initially seem like a mistake, leading them to re-read texts to understand Be as non-binary.  

As with several a human condition, many have had to deal with mental health issues in their varieties and forms. And when we find a work of fiction that explores this subject, we applaud it for its relatability. The applause continues for Like Water Like Sea. Popoola allows the nuances of mental health to become a focal point in the plot. For long, mental health has been shrouded in misconception, but through Susu, the novel shines a light on its truth. In a bold and compassionate move, the author allows Susu to share her story with a loud and clear voice; her struggles and her triumphs in her own words and perspectives. With remarkable resilience, Susu’s character refuses to be defined by her illness, instead, her personality and joy for life leap off the pages. As the story unfolds, we witness her unfaltering spirit and her love for connecting with people, which defies stereotypes and inspires hope. 

Grief also grips the pages of Like Water Like Sea, and through Nia, Melvin, Ben, and Susu’s grief, we find that everyone deals with loss differently. Susu deals with guilt over her daughter’s death, believing that if she had been more present and managed her mental health better, Johari might still be alive. Nia, on the other hand, does not grieve as her family expects, rarely mentioning Johari in conversations. Melvin openly expresses his sorrow but avoids confronting the survivor’s guilt he feels from losing his twin sister. And then there is Ben, who appears to have it all together. 

In “Like Water Like Sea”, Olumide Popoola Offers an Exploration of Contemporary Human Experiences| Afrocritik

The novel shatters the societal myth about motherhood, which typically presents mothers as superhuman. Instead, Like Water Like Sea reveals these authentic struggles in its different forms – in this case, a mother struggling with mental health problems. Despite Susu’s manic episodes, we see the genuine love she has for both her daughters. The first-person narrative style allows us to understand Susu’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. For example, when Nia grows frustrated with Susu’s incessant talking, which may seem like manic behaviour, Susu’s chapters offer a poignant explanation for her inability to stop, humanising her condition and inviting us to empathise. 

While the characters are well-developed, Melvin’s character seems half-baked and does not unfold as expected. Initially, he appears significant, but his narrative thread comes off as incomplete. If his character was not meant to be fully fleshed out, it is unclear why his teenage friendship with Johari was told from his perspective, leaving us anticipating a deeper exploration of his adult life. 

Popoola made the characters believable using compelling dialogue that enable us to appreciate their distinct personalities. Particularly, the conversations between Crystal and Nia appear to be one between friends with a lot of baggage between them, and Nia and Melvin’s conversations are filled with hurt and a lot of emotions. 

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The novel’s cast of characters, each with their unique nationality and heritage, is truly commendable. The author’s political awareness shines through in their thoughtful exploration of pressing issues like Free Palestine and Brexit. Through the lived experiences of Susu and Ben in Gaza, Popoola amplifies the issues in The Free Palestine movement which has become louder today than ever. Through Nia, the book also explores racial discrimination, and how this remains a bane in society, one that does not seem to go away and might linger all through one’s lifecycle, albeit muted. 

Like Water Like Sea comes alive with the subtle yet powerful presence of dance. Dance becomes a language, deepening the connection between Melvin and Johari, and later, a coping mechanism for Susu. In a moment of crisis, Susu chooses to dance, channelling her emotions into movement, and sharing this memory with Nia “I danced, Nia. Instead of pushing them away, I moved my feet, my arms, my hips. I focused on my body.” 

The novel’s structure is also a highlight, with headings grouped into three sections – The Swimmer, The Dancers, and The Climber – and somehow you will come to know how each heading describes its narrator. For example, The Swimmer is narrated from Nia’s perspective, The Dancers from teenage Melvin’s, while The Climber is narrated by Susu. The ending is particularly captivating, as the author leaves us wondering with the final three chapters, “This,” “or this,” or “Probably, most likely, this.” This approach is innovative, and it momentarily blurs the ending, making us ponder several possible outcomes. Ultimately, the conclusion is satisfying, as Nia’s journey to self-discovery and healing culminates in embracing deep connections with others and accepting reconciliation. 

Like Water Like Sea does not shy away from the truths of contemporary life. It comfortingly reminds us that it is perfectly fine not to have all the answers at once; in fact, it takes time for things to fall into place. Life is a journey of growth, discovery, and exploration, and the novel encourages us to embrace the process, rather than expecting instant clarity or resolution. With patience and self-awareness, we can trust that the pieces will eventually come together, leading us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Despite its weighty themes, too, there are a few sizzling moments, albeit short-lived.

The title takes on new meaning after reading the novel, as I come to interpret it in various ways. The fluidity of water is mirrored in the novel’s exploration of diversity, gender identity, and relationships. Just as bodies of water flow together to form the vast sea, Nia’s experiences, flaws, failures, relationships, and connections all merge to shape her path to self-discovery. 

Joy Chukwujindu is a Nigerian lawyer. When she’s not lawyering, she doubles as an art and culture writer for Afrocritik.

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