Rating: 4 stars
Stay With Me is Ayobami Adebayo’s first novel. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Women’s Prize for Fiction. I borrowed it from my local library knowing little about it other than that it is set in Nigeria and its subject matter is full of sadness.
Yejide and Akin marry for love. For each of them, the other is all the person they need. The Yoruba are a polygamous society, but Akin is clear that he wants no wife other than Yejide. Yejide is the daughter of an additional wife, her mother died giving birth, and Yejide has no interest in being one of many. They are well suited and happy together, until Yejide fails to become pregnant and Akin’s family start to put pressure on him to marry again.
Adebayo documents the mundanities and dangers of life in 1980s Nigeria as a backdrop to the nightmare Yejide and Akin’s marriage becomes. When fertility tests come back for both of them saying there is no medical reason they can’t conceive a child, Yejide turns to other women for advice. She receives all manner of crackpot suggestions, visiting priests and trying remedies, to no avail.
Akin does marry again, and his second wife Funmi is a torment to both of them for different reasons. Life becomes very stressful.
Adebayo sensitively explores what a deep desire to have children can do to a marriage when that desire isn’t fulfilled, how it impacts on personal relationships, how it can lead to ill-considered decisions, and how external pressure from relatives invested in continuing the family line can make things a whole lot worse than they need to be.
I don’t have children. I’ve never had a burning desire to bring another life into the world. If it had happened earlier in my marriage, I would have been happy about it, but it didn’t, and I’m fine with it. I don’t know that ache that some women have to bear children, I can’t fully imagine the anguish they feel when it doesn’t happen for them, but I have an idea of what it might be like.
My family has never put pressure on me to start a family, but I have had virtual strangers ask me whether I have children and, when I’ve said no, give me that horribly insincere sympathetic look that suggests I must be devastated. When I was younger, some people followed their sympathetic look with the suggestion that there was still time, and after I got married a colleague (a Nigerian woman, as it happens) told me I needed to get a move on. All of them meant well, I’m sure, but it made me want to ask them what business of theirs they thought my fertility and life choices were. I didn’t, of course. I’m far too British for that. I’m glad that I wasn’t in the position that Yejide finds herself in, that their insensitivity wasn’t devastating for my sense of self.
When Yejide loses a child, the callousness of her wider family is astounding. I have friends who have experienced miscarriage, who speak eloquently about how the lost child was still a child, a person to be missed, and how difficult it can be to mourn that loss in a society that doesn’t acknowledge it properly. Yejide doesn’t miscarry, but what she says about the loss of her child chimes with my friends’ experience.
It was as if nobody would miss her. No one was sorry that [she] had died. They were sorry that I had lost a child, not that she had died. It was as though, because she had spent so little time in the world, it did not really matter that she was gone – she did not really matter.
Things go from bad to worse. We know at the start of the book that Yejide and Akin are living separately, and the rest of the novel describes how that came to happen. It is harrowing at times, reading about the unravelling of their happiness, but Adebayo writes compellingly about what it is to be human, to want a family, to be a parent, and I found myself thinking about the characters in the moments I was away from the book, as though they were real.
The novel ends with a reunion at the funeral of Akin’s father. It has an honesty about it that I appreciated, staying true to the premise of the rest of the book – that life isn’t easy and love doesn’t always mean happiness. It offers hope, though.