Stay With Me - review
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s debut novel is brilliantly crafted but at times it places an almost unbearable burden on the soul. Ayọ̀bámi seems to have crammed as much pain as she can into her presentation of a close-knit, Yoruba family where the lead members struggle to live up to each others’ expectations and demands and end up succumbing to desperate measures. There is barely one wholesome relationship between all the characters. Deceit, betrayal, jealousy, ridicule and violence prevail for much of the narrative.
Most of the best stories involve conflict and heart-break. Sometimes they have happy endings, but that’s not essential. Resilience is what matters most. The hope of something better. In Ayọ̀bámi’s novel, the storyline is devastating. There is also just enough joy and hope to think that a better outcome might still be possible. Even if it seems to take forever to come. Yejide has strength almost beyond belief. Somehow she survives.
On a point of style, Ayọ̀bámi has skilfully constructed a dual speaker narrative. It took me a little while to discern who was speaking in some chapters. This was deliberate. Ayọ̀bámi explained to me in a chance encounter at the launch of Saraba magazine that she wanted the voices of Yejide and Akin to crash into each other. Their stories as individuals are inextricably interwoven in a unified, all-consuming drama.
The author, short-listed for the Baileys Prize 2017
So much of the drama in the lives of Yejide and Akin is imposed upon them by Akin’s blood relatives. When Yejide fails to provide a child, her mother-in-law sends along a string of potential alternative spouses for Akin to choose from. Eventually he gives in and makes his first wife’s life a misery, his second wife’s a fiasco, and his mother’s an ongoing frustration. This is essentially Yejide’s story, though, and her pain leads to self-delusion which sends her over the edge. It’s a wonder she ever comes back again to have another go at normal family life.
It turns out there is very little that is normal about family life in this story. The increasing obsession with producing offspring leads to shameful interaction within the family. Despite Yejide’s intense unhappiness, Akin vacillates between his skewed love for his wife, his own crumbling self-esteem and his destructive dependence on blood ties.
Deceit is everywhere. Sometimes it comes in the form of a prolonged, intensely selfish lie. At other times, it’s simply a case of not telling people something and assuming they know. The results are always devastating. Akin deceives Yejide. Yejide deceives Akin. They both deceive Moomi. Funmi (wife number two) finds out what she needs to know in the end and comes to an untimely demise. There are lighter moments, too, including the early episode with the three-day-old bean pottage, mixed with freshly made bean pottage, and the ensuing discomfort of her uninvited guests later on in the bushes. This is one of the few moments of revenge which Yejide enjoys at the expense of her in-laws.
This dish may look appetising, but left too long it can create quite a stir
The flipside of deceit, honesty, can sometimes seem worse. Yejide wants Akin to be honest, but his life would fall apart if he told her his truth. So he allows her life to fall apart instead. Akin chooses to stay silent, realising that honesty entails a transfer of power. Understanding and reconciliation appear to be unlikely prospects. As a consequence, Yejide suffers in ignorance and has no chance to make her own choices.
Despite the closely guarded secrets, as the plot unfolds, the revelations inevitably tumble out. As readers we have probably long suspected that Akin was the one with the problem. Finally things start to make sense to Yejide. Akin is emasculated, in the style of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Richard in Half of a Yellow Sun.
In another link with Adichie’s novel, though not on the same scale, the ‘love story’ of Stay With Me is set against a backdrop of political and military upheaval, with General Babangida and Lt. Colonel Gandi Tola Zidon amongst the leading figures.
Exalted company: two heart-rending stories set in destructive political times
To get the most from this historical context I would need to do a lot more research. Suffice to note for now that this realist element of the novel leads to a heart-rending decision made by Yejide towards the climax of the story. Far apart from Akin and Rotimi, with sickness and gunfire likely to bring about yet more cruel destruction, Yejide reflects:
“My last child was dying in Lagos and the country was unravelling.”
From this moment, Yejide comes to a stunning conclusion and one that I am still wondering about. I will continue to fret over this for some time. No judgements here. Just bemusement at the choice she makes.
Love and heartbreak, marital discord, family strife, terrifying sickness, and life and death are the major themes within the novel. The story ends with both life and death at the same event. Now this reminds me of The Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare. An ending and a beginning. Another chance after so much damage that has gone before. A discovery and a promise of wonders to come. Things are rarely exactly as they seem.
The title Stay With Me reflects a vulnerable but sometimes charming state of being. It is also an instruction and a statement of belonging. A plea and a command that is attributable to more than one speaker and destined to be heard by more than one listener. The title also comes from the name of one of the most important characters in the story. After so much suffering and hardship, her lasting presence is a delightful surprise in this often disturbing but positively arresting novel.
© Eddie Hewitt 2017
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ www.ayobamiadebayo.com
Connected Cultures review of the Saraba magazine launch