By Freya Neason
I loved Yejide from the very first moment. No doubt about that. But there are things even love can’t do. Before I got married I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough that it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks and comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love. (p21)
Following the announcement of the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, I have set myself the challenge to read as many of the sixteen titles as possible before the winner is announced on 7th June. I have started with Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel, Stay With Me, which follows the struggle of a young married couple, Yejide and Akin, who are finding it impossible to conceive. It explores the way in which societal pressures of 1980s Nigeria pushes their relationship to its limits, causing desperation, betrayal and grief. Essentially, this is a story of love and loss.
The most enjoyable aspect of this book is its unpredictability. I was expecting to read about the heart-wrenching emotions of a childless mother; however, this novel extends far beyond that. While at times I felt extreme compassion for Yejide, who believes that the only way to achieve a sense of belonging in the world is through having a child, in other places she was stubborn, rude and calculated. Equally, I expected to loathe her husband Akin, a wife-replacing, misogynistic first son; instead, his compassion and dedication often made my support lie more with him than his wife. The plot that drives this character development makes Stay With Me a gripping and compulsive read.
Set in Nigeria between the 1980s and 2008, this novel raises a number of important issues. A significant aspect of the plot considers the effects of sickle-cell disease which is hugely prevalent in Nigeria, affecting between 20% and 30% of the population according to the World Health Organization. Furthermore, Yejide’s struggles are depicted against a backdrop of political turmoil. The most interesting product of this Nigerian setting is the traditions and culture it sheds light upon. Moomi, Yejide’s mother-in-law, is almost solely responsible for presenting to the reader the pilgrimages, sacrifices and rituals believed to be equally as effective as medicine in resolving any issue. Whilst these practices were enthralling, and at times entertaining, they were also harrowing.
Although this is the first book I have read from the longlist, I predict that it will be a strong contender. This is because it raises awareness of the damaging physical and psychological effects that the expectation of motherhood can cause women across the world. Stay With Me reminds its readers of something which is often forgotten: a woman who does not have a child is no less of a woman. Adebayo’s masterly writing style delivers this message in a carefully measured way. Yejide’s one-liners ensure that, through the midst of unimaginable sadness, there are glimmers of comedy, making for a less depressing read. If, like me, you are also planning to read your way through the longlist, Stay With Me is a good place to start.
Image: Canongate and Faye Chua.