Sometimes it is not enough to be a good wife. A married woman is still expected to have babies in order to validate her status in society.
In her book Stay with Me, Ayobami Adebayo takes a look at the lengths to which men and women will go to achieve family bliss.
Yejide and her husband Akin are a young, contemporary and happily married Nigerian couple. But they have no children, and for years Yejide has patiently endured attempts by various family members to find a cure for her childlessness.
As the eldest son and a prosperous career man, her husband is expected to produce a son who will carry on his name.
One day, her relatives take matters into their hands and arrange for Akin to marry a second wife. Suddenly the pressure for Yejide to bear a child and save her reputation as first wife takes on new meaning, and she embarks on some desperate measures to conceive.
The narrative moves back and forth between 1985 and 2008. Yejide had a lonely upbringing as the only child of a beloved wife who died at childbirth. She grew up as a scorned child within a polygamous family.
Married as a virgin while still a university student, Yejide’s naiveté and longed-desired need for acceptance have blinded her to the deception going on in her own family.
The themes in Stay with Me are not new — polygamy, infertility, infidelity and society’s perception of role of the women in marriage.
African spirituality is practised casually alongside Christianity and modern medicine. Cultural mythology and folktales are spun into the tale. But what keeps the story engaging is the unravelling of family secrets, a suspicious death, grief, great use of cliff-hangers and the unpredictability from chapter to chapter.
Yejide is the primary protagonist, but the story is also told from Akin’s point of view. Transitions between both voices could have been better managed, as sometimes it takes a few paragraphs to realise which one of the two is narrating the tale.
The insertion of political events during the reign of Ibrahim Babangida, perhaps for socio-historic context, diverted the story from the main theme. This is a domestic saga that stands well on its own and needed no propping up from scenes of political chaos.
Instead I would have liked to see some of the interesting minor characters, such as co-wife Funmi, developed a little more.
There is also Iya Bolu, an illiterate but feisty woman who runs the neighbouring hair salon and has become something of a substitute mother to Yejide.
Nevertheless, the book is a pleasurable read that resonates on issues like loneliness, the complexity of relationships and the devastation that broken trust can cause in marriage. It is written in unpretentious language with witticisms that uplift an otherwise unhappy story.
This is Adebayo’s first book. In 2015, she was listed in the Financial Times as one of the bright stars of Nigerian Literature.
Published in 2017, Stay with Me was selected as one of the best books of the year by The Economist and The Guardian. It was on the 2017 New York Times list of 100 Notable Books and was shortlisted for 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.