‘Stay with Me’ by Ayọbámi Adébáyọ is about so many things it’s hard to know where to begin. From themes which are generally familiar to UK readers (difficult in-laws, neglected childhood, bereavement and infertility) to issues rarely covered in British fiction (I’ll get to them in a bit), I suspect each reader will take something different from Adébáyò’s accomplished novel.
Personally, it will be the unfamiliar culture so sensitively evoked that will stick with me. Although readers are prepared from the first pages to learn how things soured between our narrators, Yejide and Akin, it never occurred to me that the practise of polygamy would cause an early fracture in their marriage. The only other book I have read that dealt with culturally sanctioned polygamy is Paulina Chiziane’s ‘The First Wife,’ a challenging and shocking novel from Mozambique, only recently translated into English and published by Archipelago books. ‘The First Wife’ is a disturbing and difficult read, not just because of the subject matter but also because, written by Mozambique’s first female novelist, it is written for a home rather than foreign audience. I have been waiting for an English language author to deal with the issue, and Adébáyọ tackles it masterfully, with delicacy and nuance beyond what you would ever expect for such a potentially sensational topic.
The reason behind the ‘second wife’ is Yejide’s failure to get pregnant. I say it’s her failure because for all the characters, herself included, the accountability is clear. In the first part of the novel her attempts to deal with the situation, attempts which take in a range of Western and Nigerian ‘solutions’ and explanations, drive the plot. Echoing the ongoing turbulence of the country in which she lives (the novel’s 1980s setting is far from incidental), Yejide seems doomed to failure every time she appears to have finally earned respite.
One of Adébáyọ’s many achievements is the realism of her characters. Although recalling the plot makes it easy to see Akin as a boorish villain, his own narrative grants him the position of protagonist in his own right. The numerous side characters, from poisonous relations and irritating neighbours to famous witches and respected doctors come close to stealing the show, until the tragedy of the central relationship moves the focus back to the devastating main story.
‘Stay with Me’ offers a view of Nigeria I haven’t seen before, and it does so with compelling confidence and precision. It will be for individual readers to find out for themselves which themes or moments from the action-packed plot will most resonate. Adébáyọ’s debut is brave and exciting, and I’m delighted the Bailey’s shortlist gave me the push I needed to read it.