Book Review: Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

Women manufacture children and if you can’t you are just a man, Nobody should call you a woman. She gripped my wrists and lowered her voice to a whisper. “This life is not difficult, Yejide. If you cannot have children, allow my son to have some with Funmi. See, we are not asking you to stand up from you place in his life, we are just saying you should shift so that someone else can sit down.”

In her breathtaking debut Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo tells the story of Yejide and Akin and the Nigerian culture they inhabit; a culture that sees childlessness as failure and casts love and loyalty aside for the sake of bearing children. But like The Gift of The Magi, Yejide and Akin attempt to give to one another what they desire while losing an important part of themselves in the process. This starts with Akin’s reluctant agreement with his mother to take a second wife; a choice wholly unknown to Yejide- one that goes against everything they agreed upon when they first married.

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me-smiles, I-look-unto-God-smiles–name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick– and I had them ready. I was ready to listen to them tell me I must do something about my situation. I expected to hear about a new pastor I could visit; a new mountain where I could go to pray; or an old herbalist in a remote village or town whom I could consult. I was armed with smiles for my lips, an appropriate sheen of tears for my eyes and sniffles for my nose. I was prepared to lock up my hairdressing salon throughout the coming week and go in search of a miracle with my mother-in-law in tow. What I was not expecting was another smiling woman in the room, a yellow woman with a blood-red mouth who grinned like a new bride.

The pressure to have a son turns Akin away from Yejide, from her wishes. At the same time, Yejide, who comes from a family of many but has felt no love as the outcast child, dreams of a large family, of someone of her creation who she can pour her love into.

Yejide is fierce, and while she cannot affect Akin’s choice, she is unwavering in her decision to fight against it with what little power she possess. She vows to do what ever she can to give Akin the one thing he so desperately wants, the one thing they both so desperately deserve.

I went through several possibilities, from beating her to a pulp the next time she showed up in the salon to asking her to move in with us so I could keep her close enough to have my eye on her at all times. It did not take long to realize the ultimate solution had little to do with her. I simply had to get pregnant, as soon as possible, and before Funmi did. It was the only way I could be sure I would stay in Akin’s life.

Having already consulted the best medical doctors in Nigeria and beyond to only receive the reassurance that both husband and wife are medically sound, Yejide turns to the ancient methods hoping to conceive, to please her husband and to rescue their marriage. But her determination turns feral and she sets down an unstable path.

Meanwhile, Akin develops a plan of his own. His love for Yejide keeps him from giving himself fully to his second wife and his pride leads him down an alternative route to satisfy their need for a child. In an exquisite test of loyalty and trust, Akin turns to his family for help.

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, 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.

Secret betrayal eventually leads to children for Yejide and Akin, but the trauma of their conception is nothing compared to the many tragedies that lay before them. When the secrets they both kept are revealed, their marriage undergoes its most difficult trial yet.

Adebayo writes with a grace and sensitivity fitting to this redemptive story. An intimate portrait of trust, Stay With Me constructs a marriage built on a loving foundation and illuminates its many cracks borne of the demanding weight of culture and expectation.

I convinced myself that my silence mean I was a good wife. But the biggest lies are often the ones we tell ourselves. I bit my tongue because I did not want to ask questions. I did not ask questions because I did not want to know the answers. It was convenient to believe my husband was trustworthy; sometimes faith is easier that doubt.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Alfred A. Knopf

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