'Stay With Me' by Ayòbámi Adébáyò was a lovely book. I picked it from the shortlist for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, a place that has supplied me with many of my favourite reads. Yejide and Akin tell their story in alternating chapters, of their struggle to make their marriage work in a world that expects so much of them. Their idyllic life is marred by the intrusion of their extended families, who have become more and more concerned over the lack of children. Yejide had a lonely, motherless childhood, surrounded by siblings and four step-mothers in her father's huge household. She has determined from early on that she will be an only wife, and so is shocked and horrified to discover that her husband has bowed to pressure and secretly married a second wife. Things go from bad to worse as in her desperation to conceive Yejide undertakes a strange pilgrimage and subsequently believes herself pregnant to the extent that she has the physical symptoms, and refuses to believe the scans that show no baby.
When Yejide finally has a daughter it is as if all is suddenly right with the world, but their happiness is short-lived. A second child is born swiftly after but his life is tainted by sickle-cell disease. Their struggles to raise a family are however overshadowed by a secret that Akin has shared with no one but his brother Dotun, a secret that undermines the foundations of their relationship. As Yejide faces losing yet another child she begins to withdraw from her family and her marriage. From a distance of many miles and 15 years she receives an invitation to the funeral of Akin's father and finds herself contemplating a return. The story focusses on the pressures on both men and women within Nigerian society to live up to certain expectations, to prove their masculinity and femininity with offspring. It is a love story, both of the couple, but also of parental love, the utter desolation of a child's death and how hard it is to recover from. I found the social mores difficult; the close familial and social bonds should feel like a good thing, supportive and loving, but they were instead so often restrictive and prescriptive, telling the couple how they should feel and what they should do rather than helping them cope with their losses.
Here at Olamide's funeral:
"It was as if nobody would miss her. No one was sorry that Olamide had died. They were sorry that I had lost a child, not that she had died. It was as though, because she had spent so little time in the world, it did not really matter that she was gone - she did not really matter. One would think we had lost a dog that was dear to our hearts. It squeezed me deep inside so see people so calm, as if nothing much had been lost. And when voices from the too-calm stream of consolers told me to imagine how terrible it would have been for this to happen at a later date, on the eve of her graduation or the eve of her wedding, I wished I could will, scream, roll on the ground and give her the mourning she deserved. But I could not. The part of me that could do that had gone into the morgue's freezer with Olamide to keep her company and to beg her forgiveness for all the signs I had missed.
the funeral took place within five days. Akin and I were not allowed to attend and we would never know the burial spot. My mother-in-law kept reminding me that I should not pester anyone about the spot that had been chosen. She whispered into my ears that I must never see her grave because then my eyes would have seen evil, and then I would have experienced the worst thing that could happen to a parent, which was to know a child's burial place. I did not respond to my mother-in-law's words. I lay on the sitting-room couch through the morning, holding myself perfectly still, waiting for the moment they would place her little coffin in the ground. I was sure that if I lay still enough, I would know." (p.146-7)
What I enjoyed was the portrayal of the relationships between the women, the ones she works with, her customers at the salon and her various maternal figures. Yejide does not seem to have friends or sisters, which feels sad, no one to confide her secrets to, and so has to live with her sadnesses and insecurities. And much as Akin's secret tears them apart I felt for him too, and the solution he chose from their situation was born out of his love for Yejide. The story certainly runs the gamut of extreme emotions and wrings you out at the end.