Review: Stay With Me, Ayòbámi Adébáyò

Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother-in-law wants, and she has tried everything. But when her relatives insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear.

Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 1980s Nigeria, Stay With Me is a story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the power of grief, and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about the desperate attempts we make to save ourselves, and those we love, from heartbreak.

Ayobami-Adebayo-Stay-With-Me

The second choice of my book club, I came to Stay With Me with high expectations, having heard whispers of its brilliance. I found the book to be a stunning debut from Nigerian writer Adébáyò, a heady concoction of humour and sorrow, sharp realism about the values and weight of society’s expectations of marriage, as well as a dash of folklore and superstition.

The novel is devastating in its story line, following childless Yejide in her quest to finally please her husband’s family by bearing a child (preferably a son). But it’s not just the family who want the long overdue child, Yejide herself is so desperate to conceive she resorts to a gruelling pilgrimage up “the Mountain of Jaw Dropping Miracles” to a bearded healer who claims he can make her pregnant, a weird scenario involving breastfeeding a goat, and the resulting phantom pregnancy which haunts Yejide and her husband Akin with an all-to-real weight.

Yejide is a fearsome leading woman, but you really feel that she is stuck in the constraints of her family’s expectations and ill-formed advice. When Akin takes a second wife she ultimately succumbs to having the woman live in her house. When her second child dies of sickle-cell disease, she lets Akin’s family lacerate the child’s dead body so they will know if the ‘evil’ child tries to come back in her next birth. You can see the fight draining out of Yejide as the story progresses. The truth of her husband’s deception and the realities behind her children’s conceptions push her far away from Akin and his family, and far away from the person she used to be.

The narrative flickers between Yejide and Akin, and as much as you find out more about Akin’s secrets and his reasoning, you can’t help but think of him as weak in comparison to his wife. He redeems himself (slightly) at the end by saving his daughter in the middle of a battle, and then perhaps it is Yejide you are angry at: for her inactivity and passivity in the following years.

Adébáyò’s debut shines to me as a dazzling diamond of hope and heart of a harrowing scale. Set to the backdrop of the tumultuous political chaos of the 1980s, it took me to a place and culture I had never been to before, and I soared through the pages of Adébáyò’s easy and fluent writing style. I’m really looking forward to seeing what she does next.

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