Yejide and Akin’s fairytale romance is being put to the ultimate test by the pressure to conceive. Akin’s family have taken matters into their own hands by finding him a second, supposedly more fertile wife, Funmi. The assumption is that Yejide’s reproductive organs are the problem. Anxious to avoid further scrutiny, Akin reluctantly goes along with the arrangement.
Meanwhile, the frustration of infertility and the indignity of now having a rival are taking their toll on Yejide’s psychological state. Tired of seeing his beloved first wife succumb to one phantom pregnancy after the other, Akin devises a last-ditch scheme to rid his wife of the stigma of childlessness. It’s a plan so desperate it borders on insanity.
Ayobami Adebayo can only be applauded for daring to tackle such a culturally sensitive topic. It’s not that African authors have never before broached the subject of a woman’s devaluation by society if she ‘fails’ in her maternal duty to produce offspring, or that the blame for infertility is almost always borne by the woman. Lola Shoneyin, for instance, took a humorous but tough stance on similar issues in ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ albeit with a focus on polygamy.
Nevertheless, these cultural norms could stand to be challenged even more vociferously. Alas, ‘Stay with Me’ is not the book to do it. Despite a promising start and flashes of lyrical prose, the narrative is often weighed down by a certain clunkiness. It’s not that Adebayo is too verbose; it’s just she tends to use up more words than necessary. The author also struggles to find a distinctive voice for the main characters, instead opting for strange grammatical quirks (for example, habitually dropping pronouns in Akin’s chapters) as an unsuccessful substitution.
‘Stay with Me’ spans a particularly eventful 25-year period in Nigeria’s post-independence history, beginning in the early ’80s. Although aiming to parallel personal tragedy with national turmoil, Adebayo never quite succeeds in believably absorbing the historical context within the narrative. Characters are mere mouth-pieces for background information that has been clumsily inserted into their dialogue.
However, by far the most flawed aspect of ‘Stay with Me’ is its two-dimensional protagonists. These characters are not so much developed as moved around like chess pieces to fit around the author’s increasingly implausible plot. Adebayo is rigidly intent on a specific narrative trajectory, at the cost of realism, authentic characterisation and empathy. By the novel’s conclusion, Yejide is virtually divested of agency or responsibility for her choices. Instead, she functions like a petulant literary automaton. The whole novel is predicated on the notion that an educated and canny businesswoman is somehow shockingly ignorant of how the reproductive process works. Yejide’s virginal status on marrying Akin is apparently shorthand for being an idiot. If a reader can have their intelligence insulted this much and suppress the urge to hurl their hardback copy across the room, they have the patience of Job.
In short, ‘Stay with Me’ is Nollywood in novel format. It has a similarly compulsive quality, abounding in the same dragged-out cliffhangers and sensationalist plot-twists. But much like the films, this does not amount to good craft. And unlike the films, ‘Stay with Me’ lacks the sort of self-deprecating, aware of its own silliness humour that underlies many a Nollywood flick.
Adebayo will no doubt receive ample plaudits. Attractive young female African authors are (to a limited extent) currently in vogue. Her debut has already made it on to the shortlist for the 2017 Bailey’s Prize for Fiction. She might well be the beneficiary of goodwill generated by more accomplished recent debuts from authors of a similar cultural background.
It’s a shame that this is not of their calibre. For if there were ever an issue that deserved to be more skilfully addressed, it is that which is worthily attempted in ‘Stay with Me’.