Of late there has been an explosion of interest in the works of Nigerian writers and writers of the Nigerian diaspora. I have enjoyed reading Achebe, Okriu and Adiche to name a few but there are also many new writers rising in prominence and adding a vibrancy to the literary landscape. I recently read a very interesting debut novel called Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo which was shortlisted for Britain’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.
Stay With Me is a story about Yejide and Akin, a seemingly happy couple who had met and fallen in love at University and live in Ilesa, in the Nigeria of the eighties. They are smart, educated and modern and have a promising future ahead of them except for one tiny problem that catapults into a gigantic one and has ramifications for the whole family. They have been married for four years and have still not been able to conceive a child which is an enormous issue in a society where a woman’s self-worth is entirely dependent on her ability to reproduce. Not surprisingly the assumption is made that Yejide is the one who has infertility issues.
When after years of marriage there is no sign of a child, her meddling mother- in law decides to take matters into her own hands and proposes a new bride for Akin very casually as it is something normal within their traditional polygamous culture. The young couple is horrified by the prospect as they are modern Nigerians who don’t believe in polygamy. But they live in a society where you defer to your parents and don’t question their authority. Akin reluctantly agrees to take a second wife to please his mother. The reader is not entirely horrified by Atkin’s decision as we can understand the societal and familial pressures faced by him as well thanks to the clever technique of the author eliciting the reader’s sympathy towards him by alternating the narrative between the perspectives of the wife and the husband. Needless to say the second wife doesn’t conceive either.
To what lengths would you go in order to get pregnant when you know that the birth of a child is the only way to cement your position in the family? Yejide who once pooh-poohed superstitions and old wives’ tales starts imploring the various Gods, frequents herbalists and charlatans and consumes dubious looking teas and concoctions. She is so desperate that she climbs up a mountain fittingly named ‘Mountain of Jaw- Dropping Miracles’ inhabited by a certain Prophet Josiah and his coterie of bearded men known to bestow miracles and even breastfeeds a goat to their frenzied chants in order to get pregnant.
So eager is she to get pregnant that she actually believes that she is pregnant when she is not. There is a medical term for this extremely rare phenomenon. It is called pseudocyesis or a false pregnancy. Alarmingly, the woman exhibits symptoms of pregnancy like missed periods, morning sickness and even a growing belly without actually carrying a baby. It is a psychosomatic condition where the body is tricked into thinking it is pregnant. Akin who is at his wits’ end with the phantom pregnancy thinks of the most outrageous solution to get his wife pregnant- a solution that will prove costly to their marriage.
Akin’s strategy is successful and she eventually becomes pregnant but loses two children one after the other to sickle-cell anemia. What follows is a heartbreaking account of loss, grief and maternal love. Yejide is with her son Sesan in the hospital:
His hand gripped mine with pain-induced strength that crushed my knuckles together. I welcomed the pain in my hand, aware that it was only a tip of what he was feeling. I hoped that by holding me, he could transfuse his agony into my body and be free from it.
She finds it difficult to bond with her daughter as she is afraid of losing her as well and wants to protect herself from hurt. Her pain is so agonizingly depicted that I couldn’t hold back my tears while reading.
Atkin has his secrets and he has withheld an important piece of information from his wife that may be preventing the pregnancy. Yejide also deceives him in her own way. The web of deceit and dissimulation results in the slow disintegration of their marriage. One wonders why she stays in the marriage and endures her condition for so long! Or why does any woman stay in a deceitful marriage? If you think about it, Atkin is the first person in her life who genuinely cares for her. She was made to feel guilty by her father for being the cause of her mother’s death during childbirth and she was not wanted or valued by her stepmothers. One particularly heartbreaking moment in the novel is when she describes how as a child she would latch on to the doors of her stepmothers’ bedrooms to listen to the stories they were telling their own children. She has known what it is like to be a motherless child and now she knows what it is like to be a childless mother.
I was quite baffled by Yejide’s naivety and even wondered if she was feigning ignorance or was in denial. How can an educated woman who owns an independent business be this naïve? Of course we know that the book is set in the eighties and having grown up myself in a patriarchal culture in the eighties where girls were expected to be virgins till they were married, I can understand Yejide being somewhat clueless about sex. But the fact that she doesn’t quite know the biology behind reproduction seems a little far-fetched. I wonder if she is a reliable narrator as there are inconsistencies in her story. There is a passage in the book where Yejide speaks of a pleasurable moment during lovemaking. So girl, are you faking it maybe in more ways than one?
There are passages in the novel delineating the political disorder in Nigeria during the eighties with the various coups and military dictatorships and this political turmoil is supposed to mirror the inner condition of the protagonists. This is a weakness of the plot as the political events are not detailed and seem superfluously and hastily included in the story. At times the story with its implausibility and melodrama and the twists and turns reminds you of a Nollywood film. What I enjoyed however was the colorful depiction of the Yoruba community- Iya Bolu the hairdresser friend, Dotun the brother in law with a roving eye, the cruel fairy-tale like stepmothers and foolhardy burglars who announce in advance that they are stopping by. I also reveled in the delightful proverbs and folktales inserted into the story and the description of births, funerals and other celebrations where pounded yams feature in every repast, big or small.
This novel about love, marriage, sex and fertility, infidelity, betrayal and forgiveness is a perfect book for a book club as I can see it generate a heated discussion. It explores themes that a lot of women all over the world can relate to- a rigid patriarchy, an authoritative matriarchy that perpetuates the patriarchy, the constraints of living within an extended family, the happiness and hardship of marriage, problems with sex, the pressure to bear children, the challenges of parenthood, the generation gap and the dichotomy between tradition and modernity. It certainly resonated with me deeply as a woman, as a wife and as a mother. I hope I have piqued your curiosity without revealing too much if you haven’t already read the novel. I can assure you that Stay With Me is a book that will stay with you.