Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Baileys shortlisted, debut novel Stay With Me is an engaging story about the pressures childless, married couples encounter in contemporary Nigeria, a country where children—more than love—are deemed the centripetal force of a marriage and, as such, can determine its longevity. The novel weaves themes of betrayal, pride, deceit, love, grief, patriarchy, loneliness, and belonginess into a compelling picture that demonstrates how love can be undermined by our existential need as humans, and social creatures, to conform so we can belong to a society or family.
Set in the fractious era of military coups in the ‘80s and ‘90s—and the democratic 2000s—Stay With Me documents the middle class lives of Yejide, a hair salon owner, and Akin, a bank manager, and their struggles with childlessness. Though Yejide narrates the story and her point of view dominates, her husband Akin elucidates his motives as a secondary narrator, broadening the limits of the first person point of view.
The opening chapters introduce readers to the endless meetings and enquiries launched by nosy in-laws into the couple’s childlessness and the routine the Akin and Yejide devised for such instances: Akin writes his weekly to-do list while pretending to jot down details of the discussion and Yejide offers an array of fake smiles. It is also noted that Yejide visited shady pastors and fasted until she was hospitalised to appease her in-laws, all before one of her father’s wives and Akin’s uncle deliver their message and package of doom to her home: Funmi, Akin’s second wife.
Yejide is completely blindsided by this new development in her marriage and has an altercation with her husband for cheating on her. But owing to Funmi’s agreement not to move in, her rage quickly dissipates and everything returns to normal for a while.
Unbeknown to Yejide, Akin’s decision to take a second wife is in response to his mother’s pestering. After four years of marriage, Akin’s mother, Moomi, can no longer tolerate her first son’s childlessness and takes matters into her hands. At first, she visits Akin’s office accompanied by a potential second wife until she realises he is dithering and threatens to start visiting Yejide each week with a woman if he doesn’t make up his mind soon.
When Funmi taunts Yejide in her salon about her barrenness, it dawns on her that a child is the only insurance against getting expelled from Akin’s life. In a bizarre twist, her mind convinces her body that she’s pregnant, even though she hasn’t had sex in months and two ultrasounds prove otherwise. But when the pregnancy stretches beyond nine months, Yejide finally accepts her husband’s request to see a psychiatrist.
While trying to make sense of her non-pregnancy, Funmi shows up at Yejide and Akin’s home in the latter’s absence, demanding to move in. Grudgingly, Yejide yields knowing that if Moomi asks her to move out for resisting Funmi, she will her lose Akin, “the only person in the world who would really notice if I went missing.”
Funmi’s presence grates Akin but he doesn’t drive her away because he fears she now knows his secret. Instead, he waits for the deal he’s struck with younger brother Dotun to materialise, a deal so vile it will ultimately unravel his marriage and relationship with his brother.
Stay With Me explores some of the reasons people want to have children. For a motherless child who was ignored by her stepmothers and constantly reminded that her mother had no lineage, Yejide’s desire to have a child stems from the need to belong to someone in an “unchangeable, irreplaceable way.”
For Akin, having a child represents the natural order of things. He believes they can “change the very shape of my world.”
For Moomi, childlessness signifies shame and nothingness, a misery she doesn’t want her son to endure. “Why don’t you allow my son have a child?” she implores after accusing Yejide of preventing Akin from impregnating Funmi. “If you don’t, he will die childless. I beg you, don’t spoil my life. He is my first son, Yejide.”
Readers curious to learn how society’s unhealthy inclination to associate fertility with a person’s worth affects people and damages relationships can find a thin slice of that in Stay With Me. For those looking to get acquainted with Yoruba folklores, customs, and language—or even the unique speaking style of Nigerians—the novel doesn’t disappoint. That said, don’t expect to come away with a vivid image of south-western Nigerian where the novel is set.