Reviewed by Alice Farrant
Akin’s father has died and Yejide is coming home.
Set against a backdrop of political turmoil, Stay With Me is a powerful commentary on motherhood, love, grief, tradition and culture in Nigeria during the 80s and 90s.
Flitting between past and present, the novel follows protagonist Yejide and her husband Akin as their marriage progresses towards an inevitable parting. While love brought them together, it also pulls them apart as Akin goes to various lengths to protect himself and Yejide from a secret he can’t bare to acknowledge. As two of their children die and one life hangs in the balance, Stay With Me explores the levels of loss parents can cope with.
“Akin, I often wonder if you think about her too.”
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is a generous writer, giving her characters just enough room to speak as is needed to keep the reader in the dark but not reduce the characters to two dimensional beings. Technically, nothing feels superfluous, each word and phrase has it’s place – and you see it in the way Akin and Yejide express themselves. Every bit of information is drip fed with consideration. There is so much power to this novel and Adébáyọ̀’s writing, a subtle power that I don’t think I noticed until I began writing this review.
Yejide is a complex protagonist, powerful while slightly dislikeable. She is a force, an imperfect woman dealing with a stifling traditional Nigerian culture. As an orphan of sorts, she is desperate for a love, fooling herself that her mother in-law may think of her as a daughter rather than a carrier of babies. She is desperate for a child, desperate for the all encompassing love of motherhood, but also to fit into her husband’s family by conceiving. Tradition is rarely kind to women, and even as someone relatively unfamiliar with Nigeria and its history I recognised Yejide’s struggle. She is a fascinating character, one you root for and weep with.
Initially, Akin appears subservient and bland, but at the novel progresses you realise that what bubbles under the surface is a desperate scramble to maintain control. Akin makes many choices that negatively impact the people around him, however, because there is no malice to him it’s hard to see how cruel he has been until you contemplate everything he has done. Like Yejide, he too is complex, he doesn’t want to make bad choices and hurt people, but he does.
Together their love and grief take you down the path that tips both over the edge of sanity, in turn signalling the end of their relationship. With this, Stay With Me manages to cover a multitude of topics without ever separating itself from the main story of Akin, Yejide and their family.
The strict patriarchal values of Nigerian society work against both Yejide and Akin. To Yejide because she is expected to a dutiful wife and provide children. When there are no children it is the mother’s fault and a new wife must be found to produce children. For Akin, his impotence removes his masculinity, no matter how many wives he has he won’t be able to conceive. In Yejide he finds the perfect partner, as she initially insists on being a virgin before marriage.
Akin pushes Yejide to psychosis hiding his secret, one he can’t share not only in fear of someone leaving him but of the stigma. He kills to hide is secret, bribes his brother to sleep with his wife to hide his secret, he is buried by preconceived notions of masculinity. The longer Akin manipulates her, the less likely Yejide is able to forgive him, and the secret leads to the death of their children.
Patriarchal criticism isn’t limited to Akin and Yejide, Adébáyọ̀ writes about the female place in culture – what is expected and what is done. While female friendship is seen in the novel, with Yejide and her fellow salon owner, Iya Bolu, there is mostly an antagonistic relationship between the women in the novel. Marriages are polygamous, new wives come in to usurp the others to gain status, attention and love. It’s terrifying that women are pitted against each other like this, must learn to scheme and manipulate to survive.
Yejide seems most punished by this system, her mother died in childbirth so she never had a parent to teach unspoken rules of being a woman and wife. Yejide is so desperate to conceive, even without the pressure of Akin’s family, and she is broken by her assumed barrenness. After her struggles fitting into her family as a child, it is especially cruel that now she cannot start a family of her own.
Motherhood in Stay With Me is not one I would like to experience. Either you are competing with the other wives of your husband, putting pressure on your children for grandchildren, or after all your struggles to conceive watching as child after child, they die. Yejide is pushed to the edge of sanity. From phantom pregnancies to infant deaths, she is left only with the imaginings of what they might have been. With each new child there is less of Yejide able to love them. How can she love what will not live to be loved?
Love, in Stay With Me seems to fix nothing. Akin and Yejide are an anomaly orbiting a culture they have to work to fit into rather than naturally. It’s what brings them together and tears them apart. Yet, a passionate love, or even an understanding of love, is also what everyone else in the novel seems to lack. Another element that juxtaposes Yejide and Akin from their surroundings.
The only criticism I have is that I felt the ending lacked the strength of the rest of the novel. I wanted Akin to be punished more than he was, it felt like he escaped more than Yejide. However, within the world of the novel I can’t demand my perfect ending – if the Stay With Me world has taught me anything, it’s that life doesn’t work that way.
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, Stay With Me, (Canongate, 2017). 978-1782119463, 304pp., hardback.
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