Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo is a debut novel published by Canongate. I was lucky enough to score an ARC from my bookshop job, and I’m finally getting around to reading it!
‘There are things even love can’t do… If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, 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…’
Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother-in-law wants, and she has tried everything – arduous pilgrimages, medical consultations, dances with prophets, appeals to God. But when her in-laws insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear. It will lead to jealousy, betrayal and despair.
Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, Stay With Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. Ayobami Adebayo weaves a devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief, and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about our desperate attempts to save ourselves and those we love from heartbreak.
This is not a happy book. And believe me, that is an understatement. A note: there will be spoilers in this review. Also, trigger warnings for infant death, hospitalisation of children, scarification of dead children, infidelity, and misogyny.
Stay With Me is a character-driven story in which Yejide has an affair with her husband’s brother in order to have children. She does not want to do this, but is continually blamed by her husband’s family for her lack of pregnancy (despite the fact that her husband, Akin, is impotent, and it has nothing to do with Yejide). Unfortunately, both Yejide and Akin’s brother carry the genes for sickle cell anaemia, and her children die in infancy. Like I said, not happy.
Both Yejide and Akin are extremely complex characters, but Yejide especially. At one point, she develops pseudocyesis (otherwise known as phantom pregnancy). She has morning sickness, all the physical signs of a pregnancy, without being pregnant. I’d never read a book about this before, and it absolutely broke my heart. Her longing for a child, to the expense of every other aspect of her life, was definitely the driving force of the book, and I could not help but empathise with her.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book for me was also the continual reference to Yoruba beliefs. A main idea that runs through the novel is abiku children. From what I understand, this is the idea that an abiku is a spirit of a child who dies young. Wikipedia tells me:
…the belief is that the spirit returns to the same mother multiple times to be reborn multiple times. It is the belief that the spirit does not ever plan to “stay put in life” so it is indifferent to the plight of its mother and her grief.
This is linked to the idea of ogbanje, which is the belief that if you left scars on the dead child’s body, abiku would not return. Back to Wikipedia, which says:
Sickle cell anaemia might have contributed to this belief, as the inheritance of the disease within families may have led people to conclude that the children involved were all from the same malevolent spirit.
Of course, sickle cell is the disease carried by Yejide’s children. These are beliefs that I’d never heard of before – I’m definitely interested in learning more about them. (By the way, if I’ve referened abiku or ogbanje incorrectly, please let me know!)
While this is not the most uplifting of novels, Stay With Me is an eloquent reflection on motherhood and traditional Yoruba beliefs. I honestly can’t believe that it is Adebayo’s debut novel, as it deals with sensitive issues maturely and with great confidence. If you can bear to read it, do so.