Stay With Me
by Ayobami Adebayo
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-0451494603
By Noah Sanders
At the heart of Ayobami Adebayo’s unsettling debut novel, Stay With Me, there is a common villain: men and the consequences of their prideful ways. This is a book about men being duplicitous with women at the very highest level in order to maintain the masculine identity bore into them, seemingly, from the moment they’re pushed into the world. It is a novel about lying to those you care about—your family, your friends, your wife—to ensure that you are always viewed as the highest order of man, that your self-proclaimed biggest weaknesses are never exposed. The novel, set in Nigeria in the politically fraught days of the early 90s, drops its main characters—strong-willed Yejide and her husband Akin—into the toxic cesspool that is the oftentimes conflicting needs of traditional Nigerian culture, strongly held religious beliefs, and the suffocating presence of a dysfunctional government. Adebayo’s characters are tossed about in the frothy mix of this noxious stew, their actions products of trying to find their own way through the demands pressed upon them by family, God, and country.
Yejide, unhappy product of the traditional polygamist belief system embedded in Nigerian culture, falls hard for Akin and decides to marry him if they live with one rule: no other wives. They will eschew the demands of family and friends and live with, and for, each other only. Yet, Yejide is seemingly barren, and without being able to provide Akin with a child and under the gun of parental pressure, the promise is broken, and Akin secretly marries, pushing Yejide to try and conceive any way possible in hopes of saving their marriage.
It is no spoiler to say that Yejide does conceive successfully (many times throughout the book) and that each child she brings into the world brings its own wash of all-consuming sadness. Yet, in the Nigerian culture of Stay With Me, children and the act of giving birth is not only a woman’s gift, but her duty, and though Yejide’s children, and their invoking of her own past, drive her to depression, near-madness and a clinical coldness, it is assumed by her and those around her, that she will have more. Tradition demands it.
Tradition—cultural and religious—encircle our main characters in Stay With Me, laying a path that leads them toward bad choices and broken relationships. Akin, dishonest to say the least, may truly love Yejide (and his actions, in a skewed, unhealthy way support this) but he has been inundated with the belief that he must be a man of certain type and to achieve that he must bury himself beneath an identity that isn’t his. His actions are driven by the suffocating aspects of the traditional role of men in Nigerian society. He is supposed to provide many women with many children and when he can’t, he passes the guilt of being unable to on to Yejide, regardless of its traumatic consequences. Yejide herself, truly the central character of Stay With Me, is traumatized by tradition as well. Her mother dies in childbirth, and she is stigmatized, nearly shunned by her family because of its implications. She accepts the blame for being unable to conceive, because tradition says it can only be her fault, and as much as she pushes back against the confinement of tradition, she’s born of it, so she accepts the fault. Tradition is a part of her, and her journey, beautifully human in the hands of Adebayo, to free herself from it is the driving force of the novel.
Adebayo uses gaps in her storytelling as a narrative tool, purposefully avoiding explaining certain situations so their eventual reveal will best buoy the growth of her characters. As the book progresses and its secrets are slowly teased out, the characters’ perception of each other and the reader’s perception of them is slowly shifted, until it feels as if everyone involved is looking at entirely different people. As well as it works in terms of the development of Akin and Yejide and the slow dissolution of their relationship, it leaves Adebayo with a lot of loose ends to tie up in a short period of time. This is a well-written debut, but the ending feels cluttered and rife with pages of exposition as the scandals behind Akin and Yejide’s relationship are explained and connected, the gaps filled in.
There is a profound sadness that runs through Stay With Me, a sense of loss and responsibilities thrust upon the novel’s characters, indicative of what might be seen as a depressing novel. Stay With Me is about broken people living in a system that perpetuates their inability to repair themselves, together or separate. These are human beings forced through the sieve of humanity—the very worst of it—and though it isn’t pretty, they come out whole, different but whole, on the other side. Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel is a book that drags you down to some truly dark places, but in the end, she still manages to find a little light.