Book Review: A tragic tale about the search for family bliss

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What would you do to have children and preserve your marriage? This is the question Nigerian author Ayobami Adebayo explores in her debut novel, Stay With Me.

Yejide runs a successful hairdressing business in modern-day Nigeria. She met her handsome husband Akin in university. He was her first love, and she was still a virgin when they got married. To all intents and purposes, they are happily married and deeply in love.

But Yejide remains childless four years into their marriage, and this brings much discontent among the extended family and quiet ridicule among acquaintances. Akin is the eldest son and a successful man who is expected to marry several wives, but the two had agreed never to practise polygamy.

Yejide believes they still have time to start a family. But then, with the connivance of her in-laws, a second wife is brought for Akin. Funmi is a younger woman with fair skin and strong opinions. She cruelly taunts Yejide, who now realises her marriage and place as first wife are threatened.

Brought up as an orphan, Yejide has a strong need to be loved and belong. So she embarks on a heart-breaking journey to conceive, visiting fertility doctors, pastors and unscrupulous traditional healers. When her stomach begins to swell, Yejide is overjoyed.

Eventually she gives birth to the long-awaited children but the price the couple pay rocks their once-solid marriage. Following years of duress, Yejide’s naiveté slowly unravels as she begins piecing together puzzling incidents, questions about her husband’s behaviour and the unwarranted attentions of her brother-in-law.

Uncovering the despicable deal Akin made to address their childlessness almost breaks her. Added to this is a questionable death in their home and the misfortune befalling their children.

Stay with Me is an emotional book covering fidelity, secrets, deception, the purpose of marriage and the pressure that the African society places on childless couples even in modern times. Taking place in the background of the story are political turbulences, crime and civil unrest of Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. But the narrative mostly focuses on the domestic drama of this young family.

The story is told by both Akin and Yejide, giving us the male and female perspective of matrimony and family obligations, where culture and superstition still reign powerfully. This narrative could have taken place in almost any African country.

Adebayo, 30, has created characters that are relatable, people who are flawed and yet authentic. The dialogue is natural and although the topic is not new, she brings in unique elements to the theme. Just when you think you know how things will turn out, the plot takes an unexpected turn with new episodes that keep you engaged.

Stay with Me has received much critical acclaim in international literary circles and was shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.