REVIEW: ‘Stay with Me’ by Ayobami Adebayo

 

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Caution: Spoilers

Stay With Me is not revolutionary in style or content but when my mother stayed up until 2am reading it, I knew it would be a good story and in deed it was. Stay With Me tells the story of a young couple, Yejide and Akin, who struggle to have children. After four years of marriage, Yejide is yet to fall pregnant even after several interventions by the woman she calls Moomi, Akin’s mother. Eventually, Akin is ‘forced’ to take a second wife and this marks the beginning of the saga.

The first thing that struck me about the novel is Adebayo’s beautiful, lyrical writing. Stay With Me is one of those books where I found myself underlining sentences on every page because of how beautiful they sounded. The opening sentences: ‘I must leave this city today and come to you. My bags are packed and the empty rooms remind me that I should have left a week ago’, are a perfect example of Adebayo’s stripped back yet effective writing. Personally, I have a notoriously short attention span and enjoy novels most when writers are able to convey what they mean with the least amount of words. Adebayo knows when to extent descriptions and scenes and when to cut them short. In the opening chapter, she allows Yejide to wallow in her suffering but only for two pages, enough to introduce the reader to Yejide’s pain yet keep the integrity and strength of the character.  The novel continues this way, with chapters of different lengths and certain periods during the couple’s relationship repeated.

That being said, Yejide and Akin are in no way the perfect couple. Both characters are flawed and have their own baggage which becomes more evident throughout their relationship and the novel. Later in the book, readers find out that Akin knows he cannot father children and has never had an erection. Yejide on the other hand, lost her mother when she was young and was raised by her father’s other wives who she describes as making a sport out of ostracising her. As a result, all Yejide wants is to give a child the sense of belonging and love she lacked as a child and have a family of her own. Adebayo goes back to the early days of their relationship often and shows us how genuine their love is. She writes that Akin knew he was going to marry Yejide the first day they met and Yejide knew Akin was different the first time he kissed her. However, their seemingly perfect relationship leads to what I consider to be a fundamental problem with this novel.

I believe that everyone has agency. No matter now difficult a choice is or how subordinate a person is, giving agency not only empowers, I think often it provides a more realistic depiction of events. Throughout the novel, Akin seems to be an innocent bystander in his own life. He is ‘forced’ by his mother to take a second wife because it is believed that the reason the couple do not have a child is Yejide’s inability to conceive. In marrying a second wife, Funmi, Akin allows Yejide to relive the horror that she experienced growing up in a polygamous family. Akin also allows Yejide live through the trauma of sharing her husband when she told him the first day they met, how she did not believe in polygamy. Akin’s masculinity is so fragile that he would much rather put Yejide through trauma than admit to himself, his family and her that he was unable to father children. Funmi obviously does not bear him any children because Akin in unable to have sex with her so he begs his younger brother to seduce Yejide and after a weekend, Yejide falls pregnant for the first time. Akin is trash because men are trash but Yejide isn’t perfect either. Adebayo does not acknowledge the fact that Akin was complicit in everything, instead he is portrayed as an innocent man who wanted to make everyone happy including Yejide. Yejide on the other hand, is unable to take ownership of her actions. Her affair with Akin’s brother is solely Akin’s fault, she does not seem to realise that she could have said no. Yejide is also caught up in the idea that she has to stay loyal to Akin and for most of the novel, allows him get away with his actions.

Negatives aside, I do feel that this novel is relevant. As a Yoruba woman (the couple is Yoruba and so is the writer), I appreciated her references to Yoruba beliefs and culture with her inclusion of the idea of abiku, spirits who come as children who die before puberty. They are said to torment their mothers and come again as babies only to die a few years after birth. I also love how perfectly Adebayo was able to show the dangers of not only fragile masculinity but the self-sacrifice associated with motherhood and womanhood. Moomi kept emphasizing how to be a mother is to suffer and so in order for Yejide to experience motherhood, she needed to suffer. The business of raising and having children, is left to Yejide which I think is bullshit. I struggle with understanding the belief that women are put on earth for their ovaries. In the midst of these gender and relationship dynamics, Adebayo sets the story in a politically unstable Nigeria during the reign of Babangida. The couple’s relationship seems to work in parallel with the country. When Funmi arrives, Nigeria experiences a coup and throughout the novel the political reflects the couple’s reality and I found that before a major plot or character progression, Nigeria experienced some sort of political chaos.

I’ve written almost a thousand words and I still haven’t told you if I feel this is something other people should read. To judge whether or not I should recommend a book, I always think, was it worth the labour? What I mean is, is Stay With Me worth reading every word on every one of the 296 pages that form the book? Yes and no. Yes because this novel had me wishing I could have some alone time just so I could read it. From the first two chapters, all I wanted was to lie in bed and read more about Yejide and Akin. I found myself shouting at the characters sometimes but that is only because they are so fully formed and so meticulously developed. Ultimately, no because I felt the character’s lacked agency and there were a few holes in the plot for example, Funmi dies and is never mentioned again and I think realistically death isn’t something that is easily forgotten. As a feminist, I also felt that Adebayo could have done more with her female characters and should not have put in so much effort to get the reader to sympathise with Akin, the architect of all the pain and suffering the couple faced. Stay With Me left me a little disappointed but I’m glad I read it because I think it’s important to support African writing especially when young African writers are able to gather international interest and readership. However, the novel’s nomination for the Bailey Prize makes me question not only the standard of novel considered for literary prizes but also the image of Africa the West is happy to award and distribute.

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