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Sex, lies and sickle cell


By the time we come to the end of ‘Stay With Me’, shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the reader is spent, having been taken through the mill by the protagonist’s seemingly endless travails. We have run such a gamut of emotions with Yejide that we just want some respite, some catharsis. We therefore do not mind the rather neat ending so much. A certain reunion at the end holds enough dramatic potential for a hundred British contemporary novels about millennial angst. That potential goes unexplored in Ayobami Adebayo’s novel, but such is the intensity of the narrative, we just want closure.

The end is in the beginning, as the opening and closing chapters – as well as the odd one in-between – are set in 2008, the framing year from which the novel takes off on a journey into the past. In a mesmerising first chapter, Yejide is in Jos as she speaks to the ‘You’ that is her husband, Akin, who we are yet to meet. They have been apart for fifteen years, and she is packing her bags to go southwards, to confront her past. “The road stretches before us, shrouded in a darkness transitioning into dawn as it leads me back to you.”

The ‘darkness’ will be revealed over the course of the novel – deftly plotted and structured in three parts spanning three blocks of time – starting in 1985, 1987, and 1992. The story is told in first and second person narration by Yejide and, to a lesser extent, Akin – in 42 short chapters. The shortest, Chapter 18, would be as brief and tragic as a child’s life can be under the spectre of the Sickle Cell disease.

A sexual analogy about “midnight-pounded yam”, casually thrown by a woman in Yejide’s salon – “What do we do with a soft pestle? Can it pound yam?” – foreshadows later revelations. And so it is that in ‘Stay With Me’, we think Yejide is afflicted with one thing and it mutates into another, and another, and another.

“Flat as the side of a wall” – is how Yejide’s mother-in-law describes her stomach, as a supplementary wife is brought into the marital home. If one wife cannot have a child, another will, as the onus is on the woman, presumed ‘barren’ until proven otherwise. Those who bring forth fruit in season are elevated. Therefore, when fourth wife Iya Tunde (one of Yejide’s stepmothers) becomes pregnant, she gets to displace first wife Iya Martha from the prized market stall built by their husband. Yejide’s own desperation takes her to the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, but it is only the beginning.

Woven into all this is the idea of stories passed down from one generation to the next – as in those told by the stepmothers to their children, to the exclusion of the motherless Yejide. Then there are stories told by the culture itself, through folklore about the importance of children and their role in shaping narratives of the future. The novel explores these, first in Yejide’s empathetic retelling of the Oluronbi folktale. “I think the version of her story that survived her would have been kinder to her if she’d left behind someone who could shape the way she would be remembered.”

The second is the tale of Ijapa (the Tortoise) and his wife, Iyannibo – once told to Akin by his mother, which he now tells to his own daughter. The author leaves the story hanging in one chapter – like the fate of the characters – to be concluded in the next. The Ijapa story is in a way a commentary on how a man can aid or impede the woman in the quest for a child, echoing Akin’s own predicament.

But Akin is not without a voice. He gets to tell his own side of the story, in more précis syntax, intimating the reader as to his fears and motivations. Societal stigma is focused on the woman, for sure, but we realise there is a burden on the man to procreate, too; this ties in to notions of masculinity, and precipitates much of the conflict in the novel. “Before I got married, I believed that love could do anything. I learned soon enough that it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children,” Akin says. Adebayo delves into male vulnerability with aplomb, in an affecting depiction of a Yoruba male in love with his wife.

Akin’s mother, Amope, symbolises the cultural perspective – but she is inconstant, in turns tender and merciless, as though the author couldn’t quite decide how to draw her. Even more uneven is the portrayal of Iya Bolu whose friendship with the protagonist is thwarted by the somewhat uncharitable introduction of the character as seen through Yejide’s eyes. “A fat illiterate who belched in-between her words. If she said good morning to you, you got an accurate idea of what she had eaten for breakfast, along with a spray of spit” – goes the description of Iya Bolu, a mother of six “little girls with dirty hair”. Quite how Iya Bolu bridged the chasm to become the university educated Yejide’s confidante, is something that goes unresolved.

“The whole world knows my name is a good name in Ijesaland,” says Akin’s father in one scene. The sense of identity of the Ijesa sub-group of the Yorubas is one that is powerfully evoked in this, perhaps the first Nigerian novel to be largely set in Ilesa since T.M. Aluko’s publications, decades ago. The use of the Ijesa ‘Moomi’ in place of the standard Yoruba ‘Maami’ (‘Mother’), enhances the tone. Adebayo’s loving portrayal of ‘Ijesaness’ reaches a lyrical high point in the funeral scene: “The praise singer… stays on the street and chants, praising first of all Ijesa people, to whom your father belongs.”

Ilesa landmarks like Owa’s Palace and Wesley Guild Hospital also make appearances, but the atmospherics are missing – Ilesa in the 1980s without the ubiquitous dust? A certain Americanism creeps in at times, as in when naira notes are described as “bills”. The young couple’s fixation with their coffee mugs in Ilesa – reads more like the intrusion of a café culture of the future, post American sitcoms like ‘Friends’, than a realistic portrayal of the period in small town Nigeria.

Minor quibbles (and Yejide’s tenuous grasp of the little story of ‘the birds and the bees’) aside, this is an astonishing debut novel. A compulsive read, it unfolds against the backdrop of the tumult of the military era, particularly the stain of the Babangida years. ‘Stay With Me’ is a conversation in a troubled marriage across decades, one that holds out the hope for restitution, and the ultimate triumph of love.
• Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo; 306 pages; Ouida Books (2017).

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