Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Book review: Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Book review: Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo · Lisa Hjalt

Now that Ayobami Adebayo's debut novel Stay with Me has come out in paperback, it's time to share the book review I had promised (published by Canongate; on my № 12 reading list). To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of contemporary fiction, and, apart from the ten years, I tend to agree with author Karl Ove Knausgård, who recently said in an interview: 'I think contemporary fiction is extremely overrated, but I can’t start to name, because I’m also a part of the hype. I think there are maybe one or two great books every 10 years' (Guardian, 11 Feb. 2018). The beautiful cover design (by Rafaela Romaya) attracted me to the novel but I wasn't sure if the subject matter really interested me: a marriage threatened by infertility. I was also slightly wary of the good reviews it was receiving and thought perhaps it was yet another hype. My love for the writing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was the reason I decided to read Adebayo's book; I was curious to discover another talent from Nigeria.

Stay with Me is a beautifully written story that deeply moved me. Unfortunately, given the subject matter, it contains one too many tragedies, which didn't bother me after I had finished the book, only during the reading. Because of its plot, and how important it is to avoid spoilers, it's not an easy book to review. The synopsis reads thus: 'Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother-in-law wants, and she has tried everything - arduous pilgrimages, medical consultations, appeals to God. But when her relatives insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear. It will lead to jealousy, betrayal and despair.' Despair is the key word. The extreme measures Yejide takes to conceive are heartbreaking.

The setting is mainly tumultuous Nigeria of the 1980s. We have two narrators: the naïve Yejide, pushed to the edge in her despair to get pregnant, and her husband Akin. Other important characters are Akin's brother Dotun, their mother Moomi (who pushed all my buttons; she reminded me of the mother-in-law in Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun), and Funmi, the second wife. What made the novel a page-turner was that each time I thought the plot was becoming predictable, the author surprised with a new twist to the story that I never saw coming. To do this so masterfully, she needed the two voices of Yejide and Akin.

Their marriage is based on a lie and whether you, the reader, believe their story depends on your willingness to accept this lie when it's revealed (hinting at what it is would ruin the reading experience). In spite of the novel's many tragedies, I eagerly turned its pages, but have to admit that I paused and doubted when I reached the revelation of the lie. I then continued reading, convincing myself that Yejide's gullibility was based on the fact that she had been raised without a mother to guide her ('I had watched them arrive and evolve in my father's house, all those different mothers who were not mine').

Despite the adversities faced by the characters, there is plenty of beauty in the novel, and some humorous circumstances. More importantly, Nigerian culture and folklore. Ancient stories, beliefs, and superstitions that will raise the eyebrows of Westerners. An example is a scene where Yejide climbs up 'the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles' and dances with a goat - and breastfeeds it! - in a desperate hope for a miracle ('I needed a miracle fast. The only way I could save myself from polygamy was to get pregnant before Funmi'). One cannot help but wonder how unnecessary pain and suffering could have been avoided had Yejide and Akin only sat down and had an honest conversation.

In the end, we are all humans and have to deal with what our society expects of us. We have the choice to let those expectations control our lives or find our own path. To discover what Yejide finally decides to do you have to read the book. While you're doing that I will be waiting for the announcement of Adebayo's second novel. A new talent has arrived on the literary scene.

Stay with Me
By Ayobami Adebayo
Hardcover, 304 pages

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