By Katy Goodwin-Bates
About five years ago, I was pregnant. Specifically, I was that kind of pregnant when the baby is the size of a grain of rice and you don’t want to tell people yet, which means you have to come up with imaginative excuses for why you keep being sick in the bin. There’s a kind of anticipation which is almost unbearable, which is relieved when you can actually tell people; and yet, something is lost when your baby is common knowledge and, suddenly, everyone has an opinion about it. People are annoying.
I choose to start this review with this seemingly irrelevant analogy because my feelings about Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s debut novel, Stay With Me, are oddly similar to those early pregnancy emotions. I’ve had this book for months, long before its release date, which has meant I’ve been able to drop hints about how wonderful it is (and believe me; it is wonderful) without giving any specific information, and I almost fear the moment when this book, which I have thought of as my own special pet for almost four months, becomes public property and other people are allowed to comment on it. As the world at large reads and comes to love Stay With Me, I am going to be that annoying person snootily declaring, “well, I read it first and I like it more than you do.” Because I am a terrible grown-up.
My child-bearing analogy is ironically appropriate in the case of Adébáyọ̀’s novel, as children and the ability to have them is central to the story. Set primarily in 1980s Nigeria, Stay With Me alternates between the voices of Yejide and Akin, deeply in love at the outset of their marriage, but suffering the pressures of struggling to conceive. The book begins with Yejide suffering the ultimate indignity; tired of her failure to produce a child, the extended families bring Funmi into her home, expecting Yejide to accept her husband’s new wife as a sister.
‘Have you ever seen God in a labour room giving birth to a child? Tell me, Yejide, have you ever seen God in the labour ward? Women manufacture children and if you can’t? You are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.’ She gripped my wrists and lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘This life is not difficult, Yejide. If you cannot have children, allow my son to have some with Funmi. See, we are not asking you to stand up from your place in his life, we are just saying you should shift so that someone else can sit down.’
Understandably, Yejide is mortified by this move, increasing her efforts to get pregnant, even dragging a goat up a mountain in a ritual which she believes has the desired effect. The phantom pregnancy that results from this endeavour is only the start of Yejide’s travails. To say more about what follows would be to ruin the reading experience; I was surprised so many times by Stay With Me and its many later twists and turns, which would almost certainly have had less impact if I’d known about them in advance.
Aside from its emotive power, Stay With Me is also in possession of a dynamite narrative. Akin and Yejide are both far more honest with their imagined audience than they are with each other, creating a rare intimacy between the characters and the reader; I felt like the mutual friend of a troubled couple, hearing both perspectives but unable to intervene. The alternating structure also allows Adébáyọ̀ to pull off the plot twists adroitly, in a fashion that recalls Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies in its acknowledgement of the possibility of knowing very little about one’s partner. In writing this review, I’ve referred back to my copy of Stay With Me and found myself being shocked once more; the impact of the plot developments doesn’t diminish with time. The book is also a true cautionary tale of involving extended families in a marriage, with Akin’s mother and brother both playing their roles in the development of Akin and Yejide’s marital trauma.
I loved Yejide from the very first moment. No doubt about that. But there are things even love can’t do. Before I got married, I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough that it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.
I was a little apprehensive of returning to Stay With Me: what if, on second reading, its appeal had dissipated? I’m not sure I could have handled the disappointment but, luckily, I didn’t have to; if anything, glancing through it once more has enabled me to pick up more of Adébáyọ̀’s subtle clues and nuanced characterization. I’m already planning to read it again. It’s a book that breaks your heart, puts it back together only to shatter it again; I really implore you to grab a copy immediately.