Last year sometime the lovely folks over at Aaknopf were kind enough to send me Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo. I had heard so many wonderful things about this book and I couldn't wait to dive in. This story was a complete surprise. I wasn't certain what was going on with the main character, in the very beginning, but quickly realized she had such a deep maternal desire that overshadowed everything in her life as the story unfolded.
"Saanu mi, malo, Omo mi, joo nitori Olurun, Saanu mi, Duro timi // Have mercy on me, don't go, please. Stay with me."
Yejide and Akin have been married since they met and fell in love at university. Though many expected Akin to take several wives, he and Yejide have always agreed: polygamy is not for them. But four years into their marriage--after consulting fertility doctors and healers, trying strange teas and unlikely cures--Yejide is still not pregnant. She assumes she still has time--until her family arrives on her doorstep with a young woman they introduce as Akin's second wife. Furious, shocked, and livid with jealousy, Yejide knows the only way to save her marriage is to get pregnant, which, finally, she does, but at a cost far greater than she could have dared to imagine. An electrifying novel of enormous emotional power, Stay With Measks how much we can sacrifice for the sake of family.
Adebayo took me on journey through Nigerian traditions, customs and folklore. I loved this story in its totality without loving any of the characters, but that’s okay because they were authentic and flawed in a way that any us can find identifiable. They were completely selfish with the exception of Yejide and Akin's third child, Rotimi. What I thought was just going to be a traditional story about marriage, love and loss actually turned out to be a story much more complex and this story had more twists and turns than I expected. This story is in four parts and it takes the reader through a series of tragedies without much explanation at first. With every turn of the page I kept wondering why and how. This story kept me waiting until about the end to understand the sequence of events, but in a good way that kept me intrigued.
In the beginning I found myself feeling sympathy for Yejide. All she wants is to be a mother and she even went as far as seeking a "priest" in the mountains. Her desperation to be a mother knows no boundaries. When she comes from the mountains and tells her husband, Akin, that she is "pregnant" and can just "feel it", I was just as skeptical as he was. I thought may be she was suffering from pseudocyesis (phantom pregnancy), but sure enough she was pregnant with their first child, Olimide, who subsequently passed away suddenly. She was clearly devastated and mentally in a place of no return.
"We often as the Lord to deliver us from evil [...] And we should. However we must also consider the unspeakable evils that we seek out by ourselves. What are we doing about the terrible evils that we can deliver ourselves from? Why must we always wait for the Lord when we are perpetrating so much evil with our own hands? Have we stopped to think about the evil we deliver into the world? [...]
I found, as I was reading this story that I needed to take myself out my westernized thinking about marriage and relationships to better attach myself to these characters and story. All cultures are different. Some aspects of the Nigerian culture in regards to marriage include polygamy (I don't say this with confidence because I have not done enough research on the subject. I don't think polygamy is recognized under civil law, but may be recognized under a more traditional law in Nigeria). Akin's meddling moomie (mom) arranges for Akin to take another wife for fear that he and Yejide will never conceive a child. Her name is Funmi and she becomes a live in part of their existence and a threat to Yejide. Akin is not pleased but feels obligated to adhere to his mother's wishes. The twist is that Funmi ends up falling down the stairs and dying. Later on Akin admits to pushing her in a drunken rage. Funmi was no fool and she knew that Akin was impotent and couldn't have possibly gotten Yejide pregnant.
Here is where my mind is completely blown. Akin's had persuaded his brother, Dotun, to have sex with his wife to give her the baby she desired because he knew that he couldn't. What Akin does not expect is for his wife and brother to have a lustful sexual desire for one another and without fail they continue to have an affair throughout the marriage. This results in a BRUTAL fight between the two brothers and a tense distance between them. Yejide gets pregnant a second time with Sesan, but Sesan also dies of sickle cell disease. Yejide's third child, Romiti, gets sick as well, but Yejide, to filled with grief over the loss of her other two children flees war torn Ilesa. She leaves her husband and Romiti behind only to return to Ilesa to find Romiti has survived her illness and grown up. She wants to sincerely make a connection with her daughter and her daughter who loves her mother despite the circumstances wants to be loved by her.
"The reasons why we do the things we do will not always be the ones that others will remember. Sometimes I think we have children because we want to leave behind someone who can explain who we are in the world when we are gone."
I think that Yejide and Akin are such well developed characters. They are incredibly unrelenting in their "pursuit" to keep secrets all in the name of "family". Even in the end, it was clear that the admiration and love they had for one another when they first met at university in their youth was completely gone. It is replaced by their forelorn feelings for each other and even that didn't matter when it came to still wanting to have a picture-esq life as Yejide tells him in the end that they should “discuss how to work it all out.” They both longed for something that maybe they weren’t supposed to have. That’s a hard pill to swallow and one factor, of many, that I am still pondering over after reading this story. They both were accountable in compromising personal “morals and principles” to achieve it. Her one desire, through it all, was not only to BE a mother to someone but FEEL like a mother to someone.
"I understand how a word others use every day can become something whispered in the dark to soothe a wound that just won't heal. I remember thinking I would never hear it spoken without unravelling a little, wondering if I would ever get to say it in the light. So I recognize the gift in this simple pronouncement, the promise of a beginning in this one word."
This story is heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time. The only downside is that about three or four chapters before the last two it gets a bit slow. I felt that Dotun trying to make amends with his brother through hand written letters could have been a bit more condensed as well as when Yejide was making a life for herself apart from her husband and child. Not to mention Akin casually gets away with murder and Yejide becomes an outcast for abandoning her family. Patriarchal society never fails to excuse the behavior of men for their shortcomings no matter how heinous and the woman is blamed for not holding it all together. This story had me wrestling with thoughts of marriage and how much sacrifice it entails. How many believe having a child fixes things or fulfills some void. I loved this book so much!! If it weren't for the slow parts in the end, this book would have been a perfect read for me.