Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel Stay With Me revolves around Yejide and Akin, a young married couple who have remained childless after 4 years of marriage and all the baggage- both human and emotional – that come with it, all of this in the middle of a political transition and uproar in Nigeria spanning from the 80s to early 2000 where military coups are springing up and armed robbers write such courteous letters to their imminent hosts.
The book opens with a voice that has already lived through the story and seems belabored by its memories, and then we are led back by more than a decade into the core of our troubled couple’s pain.
The strength of Yejide and Akin’s relationship is put to test in every turn of the book’s plot; their childlessness which by the society’s standards questions the validity of their marriage , the arrival of a new wife arranged by the couple’s families that Akin helplessly concedes to, Yejide’s frantic race to conceive first which leads her to prophets of miraculous mountains and goats that transmogrify to babies and eventually a mental condition in which she believes so firmly that she’s carrying a child that her body simulates it.
Yejide eventually gets pregnant in a turn that is unexpected but not particularly shocking for those familiar with the context and setting of the society this tale is set in. And here, this breakthrough of light comes with a shadow so dark. A new curse haunts our long suffering heroine as the child and eventually children she has waited so long for come with the touch of death with them.
The woman who has waited so long to have children who will belong to her and to whom she will belong to now begins to dread them. After the death of her first two children, Yejide is broken enough to believe it is not her children’s destiny to stay with her, and hope is a thing with wings as well as a luxury she can no longer afford.
At this point of the tale, tongues are loosening, eyes begin to see with new sight and secrets are unraveling at such a steady and artful tempo that the reader is not so much as surprised but overwhelmed at the intensity of raw emotions overflowing at every turn. Ayobami’s use of two narrating voices – one dominant and the other, gently speaking for the other side- gives the reader access to the fears, pain, insecurity, loneliness, ego and anger of the major players of the story and one cannot help but acutely feel, almost without judging, what drives Yejide and Akin to take the decisions they make.
With Stay With Me, Adebayo steadily steers us through what it means to be childless and consequently barren as a woman in a Nigerian society. For Yejide who grows up without any familial love, the pain is more acute in her need to have someone to call her own, to ‘ look for her if she goes missing’. Polygamy, betrayal, loss, patriarchy and the frailty of the male ego, sickle cell disease and the overwhelming need to belong somewhere and to someone are allexplored, but what really shines through Stay With Me is the clarity of human emotions and the pure joy of language artfully executed.
In a time where the new fad is the re-invention of language to bring forth new styles and desire to tell such new stories and unexplored terrains, Ayobami’s storyline which is almost a tad predictable and familiar shows that a good book can still tell us what we already know. It need not be filled with outlandish ideas and pandering sub themes, all that is necessary is that it is told with the requisite honesty, and the clarity of emotions.
The ‘Yoruba English’ employed in the conversations of some of the characters and in the telling of proverbs, folklores and songs is also a thing of beauty, particularly for those who understand the language. And, for me, it seems like there are two types of reading going on, the initial reading of the words on the page and the mind translating it back to another language and reading it back to you.
There are however certain plot holes and inconsistencies in the story with regard to the unraveling of the true nature of Yejide and Akin’s sex life: the plausibility of Akin’s cover up that apparently satisfies his wife for 4 years and how it inadvertently casts doubt on the authenticity of Yejide and Dotun’s first sexual encounter, as well as how Yejide could have honestly believed herself to be pregnant that first time. However, the plot moves so fast that these holes don’t let it collapse and they are almost easy to forget.
Stay with me is overall a book about an intimate exploration of human behavior as well as forgiveness, empathy, loss and perhaps every other heart wrenching emotions one can think of. The characters do stay with you even after the last page.