Shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, Ayobami Adebayo's Stay With Me reads almost like a thriller with its twists and turns which is a little unexpected in a story of domestic drama and discord. It works, though; it works really well. This is the story of a marriage between two who on the surface seem eminently suited but the pressures of family and culture weigh heavily on them. As they try and please those around them and live up to expectations the weight seems only drive a wedge deeper and widen the rift that promises to crack their marriage in half.
Adebayo is a Nigerian writer who is the fiction editor for Saraba Magazine (new to me and a happy find since it showcases authors from Nigeria and other parts of Africa). The story moves between the mid-1980s and 2008 and is set primarily in Ilesa, Nigeria and Lagos. It's a fascinating portrait of a place and culture I am totally unfamiliar with. But while locale may be exotic and foreign and the culture unlike my own, the problems Adebayo writes about are universal no matter how different the guise they seem to take. That is the making of a really good read!
Yejide and Akin meet at university. She's alone and he is with a date. They sit near each other at a movie, but he has eyes only for her. On that night he breaks up with his girlfriend and takes Yejide home, and that is pretty much that. But it's only the very start of their story. Yejide has a talent for braiding hair and opens a salon at Akin's urging. Family is everything, it seems, in Nigeria. There is a great respect for elders and children are wanted and expected and there is a pressure from all sides to have them. Sons in particular. So when Yejide and Akin do not start their family right away the pressure builds to a boiling point. Of course it is the mother who bears the weight and Yejide feels it from all sides--she knows Akin wants to start a family, her mother-in-law does more than just drop hints. Yejide is essentially an orphan and her own difficult childhood is a different kind of stress but no less so.
In Nigerian culture it is not unusual for a man to take a second wife. Particularly if the first wife cannot produce a healthy child. It's an insult to Yejide for her mother-in-law to urge Akin to take another wife. Needless to say Yejide balks at even the idea. Moomi does more than just urge, however, she brings young women almost as a parade of sorts to try and find one that will tempt him. He does not want a second wife, but family pressures are too much to bear. It's a little strange to look inside the intimate and private world of a marriage to see, and worse feel, the pressure Yejide must deal with. She tries to comply in any way she can, going to 'witch doctors' to try and increase her fertility. There comes a point where sometimes the mind takes over and the body tries and bend to those wishes and desires and so certain is Yejide that she is with child that her womb seems to be filled with a growing baby.
This story is set against the backdrop of the political and military machinations of a country in flux. Protests and coups, marauders or pirates demanding money and walking away from homes with electronics and money given freely by the owners so fearful are they just to stay alive. Adebayo has written a page turner that feels like pure entertainment but reads with literary smartness if you know what I mean. For me, this story has it all. This is a story that will surprise you and entertain and enlighten. The narrative moves around in time and both Yejide and Akin tell the story from different vantage points. You piece together all the secrets of their marriage, which is why I don't want to give too much of the story away. It is best appreciated as it rolls out before the reader, and it does so in a very flowing natural way that you don't even notice all the time shifts.
I will happily press this book into your hands and if it wins the Baileys Prize I know I would be very pleased. It has not yet been released in the US, but you can find it in paperback at the Book Depository. The US release date is set for August. I think this might be her first novel and I know will will certainly be watching for her next book.