Book review by Ifeoma Chinwuba
Title: Stay with me Author: Ayobami Adebayo
Publisher: Vintage, N.Y. 2017
Nowadays, couples who remain childless are either ignorant of the possibilities out there, or are financially handicapped. This is not the case with Akin and Yejide, the protagonists in Stay With Me. The traditional society equally made provision for husbands that shot empty shells by designating a close relative to ‘go into his wife’ and ensure a lineage for the fellow.
In the absence of technology and a family arrangement, a childless woman anxious to remain relevant in her matrimonial home, resorts to self-help. The clock starts ticking furiously when the marriage becomes a ‘throuple,’ with the arrival of an ostensibly fertile, second wife.
Nowadays also, in Nigeria, (and I hope in black communities elsewhere), before marriages are contracted, genotype testing of the couple, is required to ensure that sickle-cell babies do not result. This testing is not undertaken in ‘away-matches.’ Yejide’s resort to outside help will result in a pyrrhic victory. Her shame is erased, yes but a Pandora’s box will be flung ajar.
One of the underlining themes in Stay With Me appears to be the importance of dialogue and trust in relationships. A couple could put heads together to find a solution to their problems. Instead, Akin and Yejide go about it individually and clandestinely, without the other’s knowledge. It ends in chaos.
Why this hullabaloo for a child? Because virility in Yorubaland is linked to the number of progeniture. Recently, a Nigerian senator boasted in the Red Chamber that he had four wives and twenty-seven children…and still counting. Akin’s desperation to father, is to be viewed from this perspective. His rising profile in Capital Bank, his acquisition of more real estate matter little. His lineage, his standing in the society will be determined by his ability to impregnate. He will go to all lengths, including femicide to protect his social status.
The themes that Adebayo has successfully treated in this book, resonate in present-day Nigerian society: barrenness and the sickle-cell disease. Barrenness itself, is as old as Father Abraham. It is a theme that recurs in literature because it serves not only to show character but also to thicken and to advance the plot; (Half of a Yellow Sun, Efuru) How will the couple react to it? How will the in-laws take it? What will the wife do, seeing that the needle of suspicion points to her?
Adebayo’s tale is believable and fast-flowing. The characters are true to life. The intrigues in a polygamous home are well depicted. The love-hate relation between siblings and half-siblings is a common occurrence and is steered to drive the narrative. The dialogue is logical and true to life, interspersed with the witticisms and proverbs of the Yoruba; do not call a snail a weakling, until you carry your house about on your back for a week. Fairy-tales, rampant in our culture, are used to mirror the story-line and foreshadow the direction of the narrative.
Akin and Yejide take turns to tell the story using the first-person narrative technique. This technique provides a holistic capture of the events and a peep into the character of the narrator. The downside must be that some events are repeated, like the meeting between Akin and Yejide at the Ife university.
Another technique that is deftly used is the flashback. Indeed, the whole story is a rehash in the mind of the female protagonist, who sets out on a journey as the novel opens. Throughout the trip, she is reminiscing on past events and the purpose of the journey. The past merges with the present at the journey’s end and all the strands become one.
The novel captures the zeitgeist on marriage; the dogged desire of women to remain in a dysfunctional union. Yejide accepts the second wife, first kept in a flat outside, who later erupts into the matrimonial home. She remains in the ‘throuple’ even when it is clear that she is not to blame for the barrenness.
The role of third parties in marital foibles is also brought under scrutiny. The proverbial witchy mother-in-law is exemplified by Amope, Akin’s mother, who after pleading with Yejide to make way for a fertile wife for her son, goes and marries one for him. The two protagonists issue from polygamous homes so the arrangement is not novel. In essence, Adebayo is saying that no matter the level of one’s education, in the final analysis, culture will dictate one’s choices.
Stay With Me is Adebayo’s debut novel. It will not be her last because her mastery of the nuances of the English and Yoruba languages portend a promising career in wordcraft.
Ms. Ifeoma Akabogu Chinwuba is the author of several novels including Merchants of Flesh, Fearless, Waiting for Maria and African Romance. She writes from Ottawa.