Stay With Me (2017) by Ayobami Adebayo follows the story of a marriage over the span of decades. Based in Nigeria, it’s about a woman who does not conceive after 4 years of marriage and so her husband takes on a second wife. It’s passionate, fraught with peril, psychotic breaks, poisonous secrets and a lot of other cliche words that can be used to describe your favourite melodrama on television. The plot twists are hairpin turns and will have you turning pages as fast as you can.
“The things that matter are inside me, locked up below my breast as though in a grave, a place of permanence, my coffin-like treasure chest”
The first chapter wasn’t too great. It took a while to understand what was going on and instead of being pleasantly mysterious it was a bit too confusing. Also, to people like me who aren’t geographically savvy AND unfamiliar with African names I had to use Google to find out that the chapter titles were cities and not new POVs (although this is a shortcoming of mine and not a fault of the author’s).
A lot of people and reviews have been saying that the fact that this is Adebayo’s debut novel shows a lot in her writing. I agree with them. Firstly, when she changes between Yejide and Akin’s POVs, the transition is not that clear. In works such as A State of Freedom, a change in narrator equals a plunge into a whole new way of thinking / a whole new writing style. I’m not asking for anything dramatic, but there should be a few subtle differences between two separate characters. A few of my friends also complained that Akin’s voice seemed too ‘feminine’ I don’t know what they were trying to say by that but I kind of agree.
“The reasons why we do the things we do will not always be the ones that others will remember. Sometimes I think we have children because we want to leave behind someone who can explain who we were to the world when we are gone”
Also, some of the plot twists were glaringly flawed and not believable. I don’t know how to really elucidate on the topic without giving away any spoilers but there are some parts of the story that don’t make sense no matter how much we discuss it. But I guess the point of the story is not to be 100% believable but to prompt a flavour, an exaggeration of societal flaws.
“Already I was coming undone, like a hastily tied scarf coming loose, on the ground before the owner is aware of it”
This novel, fast-paced and short, can be read in a day or so but will prompt so many discussions. It allows for deep reflection on the ideas of motherhood, family, legacy and loneliness. It looks at feminitiy deeply – beautiful girls are prevented from being book smart because they’re distracted by boys chasing them, women being validated only through marriage and child-bearing rather than through education and career, women putting up with everything just to stay in a marriage or keep a husband (‘the patient wife wins the husband in the end’).
“She said the word ‘beautiful’ as if beauty was a bad habit”
It was so refreshing to read new idioms and sayings from a culture I’m not familiar with. It’s been a while, and I realised I’ve become so comfortable being exposed only to the ones I know – Arab sayings and Western/European/American cultural sayings. “She was like water; she had no enemies in her family” is a cultural reference that reflects the arid environment they live in. Water is so precious, and that’s something in Qatar that I understand where we have special prayers for rain held in schools etc.
“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”
The novel also discusses mental health, psychic breaks, fertility/impotence and dealing with loss. It even shows how loss permeates across generations. These are all important topics that the book kickstarts, and Adebayo shows how love can be warped by any of these obstacles, or how love can actually exacerbate these issues.
It was also so interesting to see polygamy through the lens of a difference culture. Polygamy is practiced in Qatar legally and through Islam, whereas in this book the polygamy was through Nigerian culture. Yet, there were so many parallels my friends and I could draw between these two very different societies. The idea that “bitterness” is the reason why a woman is barren, hounding the wife if there is no child after a year of marriage, how a childless marriage suddenly becomes the business for all family members near and far. Even the idea/superstition that once the second wife gets pregnant surely the first wife will also be blessed with a child (actually, this really did happen to someone I know).
They also brought up the idea that a woman, after having children, doesn’t (shouldn’t?) want or need a husband or man. “What was a husband compared to a child that would be all min? A man can have many wives or concubines; a child can have only one mother”. I hear a similar sentiment all the time in Doha. But it bothers me a little.
Why do we need more than ourselves? Most men don’t go around yearning for children for unconditional love, and find love from as many women as they want. Why can’t we be taught to think in the same way? A single man in his forties is not pitied. He is not pitied for being alone. It’s the idea that we depend on love from external sources and not from within ourselves. However, if the woman is only fulfilled if she bears a child, why is it that the child carries on the man’s legacy?
The part about bearing the name is true in Qatar also, where a person’s name is followed by the father, grand father, great grand-father etc. names.
“However, we must also consider the unspeakable evils that we seek out by ourselves. What are we doing about the terrible evils that we can deliver ourselves from? Why must we always wait for the Lord when we are perpetrating so much evil with our own hands”
The crazy thing about this book is that it so clearly shows us how we distance ourselves from our own sins. We can rationalize anything to ourselves, our lies, our craziest schemes. We can even distance ourselves from murder and still find fault in our victims. This is how we manage to do such unrepairable damage to the people we love, and so the inclusion of the sermon was a really good tool.
“I had become immortal, part of a never-ending chain of life.”
The part about the worst evil is a parent outliving their children hit really close to home, especially having lost a brother and seeing my parents try and survive that loss. It’s not an easy subject to discuss and it was cathartic to ready about it.
This was a beautiful, searing and powerful novel and I really recommend it.