Like it happens with all the books I have read and loved with a dizzying fierceness, I knew I wanted to read Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me the second I heard about it. I read everything I could find online about the author, and every review of the book I could find. Imagine my joy when I discovered it was also out on Audible! I listened to this book from start to finish in two days alternating between time on the floor with the narration sped up to times two and running errands in town completely oblivious to the world at narration speed almost doubled.
This is what Stay With Me does to you: it commands your entire world to a stop. Set in 80’s Nigeria - predominantly in Ilesa, Osun State - the novel tells a story of a young couple - Yejide and her husband Akin. These two protagonists, married for four years, are accustomed to familial interference on account of Yejide’s ‘childlessness.’ On this one visit, however, the couple’s fate is thrown into a whirlwind, and their marriage is left at the bay of despair.
In what was a norm in preceding centuries, Moomi, Akin’s mother, procures a new wife for her first son; one they believe will bear Akin a child - a child they think will “call another one into the world”, be it for Yejide or the good of the (extended) family. What initially was a mother’s attempt to save face and a much-sought after proof of femininity, this becomes the beginning of Yejide’s undoing: “like a hastily tied scarf coming loose, on the ground before the owner is aware of it.”
THE INADEQUACIES OF LOVE
Love, growing up, has presented itself as all powerful, all forgiving, all encompassing — and then there is the story of Akin and Yejide. Some parts of the story are told from Akin’s perspective, including his meeting and falling in love with Yejide; knowing from the first moment he saw her that he wanted to marry her. It is obvious that Akin does love his wife, in his own twisted way. He wants her to be happy, so much so that he goes extra lengths to reaffirm his love and respect for her, even after giving into his family’s request of a second wife.
Akin and Yejide’s love story is enviable at the start. Akin ends his relationship with his current lover just hours after setting his eyes on Yejide and then they are married before the year ends. Four years after marriage, their love is however stumped not just by their childlessness, but also by his initial reticence about her longing for offspring, secrets Akin keeps, and the ensuing deception he perpetrates.
The slow and heartbreaking transformation in their marriage testifies to the truth that love cannot fix certain things. It shows how love can become a burden; how this burden, if it stays too long, will see that “love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break.” Notwithstanding, as Adébáyò writes in insightful prose, Akin and Yejide’s complex relationship shows that “even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love.”
Although he tries to hold Yejide up in the dark times, Akin is not without reproach and as such, in the earlier parts of the book, the reader is more than likely to judge him. However, as the story progresses, it is plain to see that Akin’s character is compelling and human. One becomes privy to the pressures he faces and the intentions behind his decisions. Despite the weight of Yejide’s pain, one is forced to understand that Akin has his own demons to contend.
The complexity of his choices caused me anger, heartache, sorrow and confusion.
Still, I am moved to ask, what are we all if not flawed?
AIN’T I WOMAN ENOUGH
The reader discovers that Yejide is motherless; having lost her mother only minutes after her birth. The absence of a mother is life-changing for Yejide, as it should be. She is unable to call anyone else Moomi, finding the “very thought sacrilegious, a betrayal of the woman who had given up her life” for her. That is until she meets Akin’s mother - a woman whose embrace makes her heart sing the very word she never thought she would use again.
Moomi’s warmth is replaced by hostility, and it soon becomes clear that Moomi’s affection is largely dependent on Yejide’s ability to “manufacture” grandchildren. One is forced to wonder: isn't the true essence of motherhood pure, unconditional love? How much choice does a motherless child have in picking the kind of love they deserve?
Yejide’s motherlessness and subsequent childlessness bring to mind the powerful concluding sentence of Taiye Selasi’s short story: