Ayóbàmi Adébáyò’s novel Stay With Me, shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, is not just an account of 1980s Nigeria’s political and social situation; it is also a celebration of female strength and weakness.
Yejide, the protagonist, is married to Akin; it all began as a wonderful love story, the kind of love story you wish on everyone you hold dear, the kind of love that should yield happy years until the day that death comes to one (or both) of them. But not for Yejide and Akin. Their love is overshadowed by barrenness, or, more accurately, impotence. Throughout the first three quarters of the book, we are led to believe that Yejide is the one who has trouble bearing children. Medicine men, pastors, and doctors are called, pleaded with, paid, and prayed to, all in the name of conception. The pressures on the young couple, and especially on Yejide are so high that she ends up suffering from pseudocyesis (false / imaginary pregnancy).
The account of Yejide’s life is fraught with heartbreak, pain, sympathy, and some instances of piercing irony. Akin’s inability to get his wife pregnant results in him secretly marrying a second wife, putting even more strain on Yejide’s and Akin’s relationship. And when even the marriage between Akin and his second wife, Funmi, yields not fruit, Akin comes up with another idea, with catastrophic consequences.
While Nigeria’s political situation unravels, armed robbers terrorise families, Yejide suffers losses, enjoys small moments of victory, and seems to build an incredible amount of strength throughout.
In Ayóbàmi’s work, the men are onlookers, they ruin things, while women are strong, resourceful and resilient. Even though the society they live in is thoroughly patriarchal, and the men often contemptible bystanders, Ayóbàmi’s work still gives them a voice, we see their point of view, and we are allowed to sympathise with them, showing us that everybody is human (even when they’re extremely unlikable).
Stay With Me is an important work that mercilessly shows the challenges and hardships infertility and societal pressure can put on women and couples. Yejide and Akin could have been happy, were it not for societal expectations. The life of Yejide in the 1980s Nigerian society will wreck your soul – not just because it is fraught with extreme pain and disappointment, but because anyone of us could be Yejide, or Akin – and many of us indeed are. Yejide and Akin’s journey will become yours while reading this book, their story will squeeze your heart so hard, you’ll want to cry and never stop, while the tender moments in Yejide’s life will patch your heart back together and fill it with so much joy, you’ll think it will explode.
Stay With Me is a monumental work that sheds light on a problem many have and only few talk about. It is a novel that celebrates female strength that persists in the face of unimaginable obstacles. Ayóbàmi’s work has earned its place among the other masterpieces on my bookshelf, and Yejide has forever left her mark on my heart.
A translation of this review is now available in German – thanks to our friends and collaborators at Akono Verlag. The German edition may be found here.