The Intersections of Marriage and Culture
There are good books and then there are great books. It is a mantra that crosses a reader’s mind time and again. In the heaps of books that are available for one’s consumption, it is very rare to encounter a treasure of a book that will deeply move a reader, a book that will arouse the deepest emotions. They are a rarity but when you find one, you just know that they will leave indelible marks on you, imprints that will last forever. Nigerian writer Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s Stay With Me belongs to that rank.
At the fore of this epic story is a young Nigerian couple, Yejide and Akin. Like any normal married couple, they’ve been longing to have children for years but all their efforts were futile. With their inability to produce an offspring, complications started to surface. What was once a harmonious relationship begun to crumble under mounting pressure from all corners. Deceit, betrayal, jealousy, lies, and grief slowly undid a relationship that was once bound by trust, love, loyalty, and honesty.
“If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.” ~ Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, Stay With Me
The frailties of marriage is the story’s centrifugal point. Marriage has always been an inconvenient subject. It has several facets to it and is influenced by several factors other than love and romance. It is the plethora of outside influences that make marriage a very complicated business. In this captivating narrative, culture and society’s views were great factors in defining Yejide and Akin’s marriage. Adébáyọ̀’s depiction of modern marriage was on-point.
With acuity and precision, she painted an intricate backdrop to Yejide and Akin’s story. Her fine layers of 1980s and 1990s Nigerian history gave the narrative a finer texture. Adébáyọ̀ gave the readers a peek of Nigeria’s fragile political climate marked by foiled coup attempts, elections, and violence. Despite the turmoil, life goes on. Adébáyọ̀ astutely drew the contrast between the daily lives of Nigerians and the political pandemonium happening on the background. The novel, however, was bereft of any political message or color.
Stay With Me is an intersection of the modern and the traditional Nigeria. Yejide and Akin’s married isn’t fixed, like most traditional African weddings were. They are both university-educated, and financially capable – Yejide manages her own salon while Akin works for a bank. Their modernity is a stark dichotomy to their parents and extended family’s beliefs which were steeped in tradition, including polygamy and child brides. They obnoxiously shoved their agenda down Yejide and Akin’s throats, wrecking unnecessary havoc to what has been a peaceful union.
The novel’s most engaging part, however, is not on the marriage per se. Adébáyọ̀ made the readers care about the characters in a manner that one rarely encounters in the published text. The presence of several moral and philosophical crossroads kept the readers reeled in Yejide and Akin’s story. Rather than mere spectators, the readers are woven as part of the narrative, involved in the debacles where the modern meets the traditional. Adébáyọ̀ treaded the morally-charged territory with keen acuity and critical erudition.
“So love is like a test, but in what sense? To what end? Who was carrying out the test? But I think I did believe that love had immense power to unearth all that was good in us, refine us and reveal to us the better versions of ourselves.” ~ Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, Stay With Me
Apart from history, culture played a major role in the story. Its The way it shaped Yejide and Akin’s union was wonderfully captured by Adébáyọ̀. Other cultural touchstones rendered the novel authenticity and a distinct atmosphere. Interwoven into the narrative are some African tales, cultural beliefs, and the “abiku”. The “abiku” refers to a the spirit of children who chose to die young and was also mentioned in other African literary works such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.
Adébáyọ̀ flawlessly wove the tapestry of her novel. She waved her proverbial literary wand and conjured a magical tale that possessed a strong sense of interplay between traditions, modernity and political unrest. She developed a set of flawed and intriguing characters. In alternating chapters, Yejide and Akin individually related their points-of-views, hence, creating an intimate reading experience, and further involving the readers.
Whilst Akin was greatly portrayed, it was the portrayal of Yejide, whose voice dominated much of the story, that made the story soar. Some of her decisions and choices were debatable but Adébáyọ̀ drew a character that is so deep and authentic. Moreover, she fine-tuned the voices like a maestro at the orchestra. She dictated the tempo with such bravado and intent. Tensions rose, fell and fused effortlessly like harmonies and crescendos.
“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 recognise the gift in this simple pronouncement, the promise of a beginning in this one word.” ~ Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, Stay With Me
Adébáyọ̀’s writing and language was stellar and breathtaking. Her focus was sharp and not once did she let her narrative wander. She wrote effortlessly, letting the story speak for itself. She didn’t overwhelm and she neither to romanticized nor sensationalized. Her writing was tight, filled with tension, drama and dialogue rather than descriptive text. Her writing is akin to a sharp knife, cutting straight to the heart of the story without much ado but still with enough imagination.
Stay With Me, is, literally, a magnetic story that will remain glued on the reader’s minds. A distinct and memorable story was fashioned through Adébáyọ̀’s graceful, precise and powerful storytelling. It is a story many can relate to. The colorful albeit tumultuous background, the flawed but intriguing characters, the simple but interesting plot, the moral crossroads were capably fused into a breathtaking and memorable tapestry by Adébáyọ̀’s cunning ability.
The nostalgic, and emotionally-charged closing paragraph brimmed with hope. At once heart-wrenching, heartwarming, elating and tear-jerking, the ending is a powerful conclusion to what has been a magical roller-coaster ride:
I shut my eyes as one receiving a benediction. Inside me something unfurls, joy spreads through my being, unfamiliar yet unquestioned, and I know that this too is a beginning, a promise of wonders to come.
Characters (30%) – 30%
Plot (30%) – 30%
Writing (25%) – 25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
Maybe I am calling it too early but Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s Stay With Me is definitely one of my best reads in 2020, perhaps all time. It is a very powerful and magical tale that sucks the reader in with its moral crossroads, with its flawless writing and its captivating plot. It has all the right elements and Adébáyọ̀ perfectly sew all these elements together under her careful care. It is a masterpiece that one rarely encounters these days.
Yejide and Akin’s story left a lasting impact, a literary hangover. I’ll keep on singing songs of praise for days but I know it will never be enough to describe the elation and the awe it inspired in me. It is a highly recommended narrative that every reader, even non-reader, must read. Do take note that this is Adébáyọ̀’s debut novel; I surely can’t wait to what more she has in store.
Author: Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
Publisher: Canongate Books
Publishing Date: 2017
Number of Pages: 296
Genre: Domestic Fiction
Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother-in-law wants, and she has tried everything – arduous pilgrimages, medical consultations, appeals to God. But when her relatives insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear. It will lead to jealousy, betrayal and despair.
Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 1980s Nigeria, Stay With Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ weaves a devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief, and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about our desperate attempts to save ourselves and those we love from heartbreak.
About the Author
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ was born on January 29, 1988 in Lagos, Nigeria. Shortly after her birth, her family moved to Ilesa and then Ilé-Ifẹ̀. It was at the latter that she spent most of her childhood in the University Staff Quarters of Obafemi Awolowo Univeristy.
She earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Literature in English from the Obefemi Awolowo University. In 2014, she went to study Creative Writing (Master of Arts in Prose fiction) at the University of East Anglia. At the University of East Anglia, she was awarded an International Bursary and also studied there together with Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and Margaret Atwood. A year later, she was listed by the Financial Times as one of the bright stars of Nigerian literature.
Stay With Me, her debut novel, was published in 2017 to critical acclaim. It was both longlisted and shortlisted in a score of prestigious literary prizes such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her poems and stories were also published in different magazines and anthologies. Adébáyọ̀ has also received fellowships and residencies from different cultural institutions such as the Ledig House Omi, Sinthian Cultural Institute, Ox-Bow School of Art, and Siena Art Institute.