“What would be left of love without truth stretched beyond its limits, without those better versions of ourselves that we present as the only ones that exist?”
In her remarkable debut novel, Ayobami Adebayo seeks to answer this question posed in Stay with Me (Knopf; on sale August 22), a formidable contribution to the growing cannon of literary works by black diasporic women this year.
Spanning love and loss across two decades, Stay With Me revolves around the lives and secrets of Yejide and Akin Ajayi, a young couple who marry during university in 1980s Nigeria. Civil war—unbeknownst to the pair and to their fellow countrymen—is on the horizon, with the latest series of military coups occupying the forefront of everyone’s mind.
More pressingly for the young couple is an increasingly trenchant problem: after four years of marriage, Yejide is unable to get pregnant. Moomi, Akin’s meddling and unrelenting mother, comes up with a solution in the form of Funmi, a second wife—a younger, lighter-complexioned waif of a woman with fiery-red nails, determined to give Akin the one thing Yejide cannot.
Until this point, the husband and wife are an exemplar of modern love, bucking tradition by eschewing to polygamize their marriage. Unaware of this arrangement brokered between her mother-in-law and a reluctant Akin, Yejide is blindsided, and left devastated as Akin submits to the new agreement. Soon Yejide is forced to share her husband—and later, her home—with her rival, all the while suffering through the puzzling symptoms of pseudocyesis.
Despite this encroachment on the marriage, understated feminist declarations—from Yejide’s insistence on finishing university, to her ownership of her own hair salon to later, making an unorthodox, autonomous choice at the story’s end—exist throughout the novel, lending antithesis to other patriarchal conventions like bride price.
Stay with Me explores the harrowing complications of love: between a tortured husband and his long-suffering wife; a mother and her sickly offspring; and two siblings, forced to share a devastating secret. Both Yejide and Akin narrate Stay with Me, giving an interwoven rhythm to the tragedies the pair suffers.
Joining a talented coterie of female writers from the African continent, Adebayo skillfully incorporates the heightened anxieties caused by the tenuous political climate of her homeland, providing a textured, combative tension that mirrors the war between the Ajayis. Somehow, Adebayo is also able to impart a public service announcement of sorts on the pervasiveness of sickle-cell disease in sub-Saharan countries like Nigeria.
But where Stay with Me‘s life-force beats its hardest is its unpacking of Yejide, a modern woman trapped between social propriety, her love for her family, and her insistence on existing. In a recent interview with Vogue, Adebayo expounds:
“If there’s one thing readers might take away from this story is that it’s okay to make peace with the state of being on your own, and to use that as a point of departure in relationships,” she says. “I think for women in particular, it’s kind of like you’re expected to get married, have a child, and then you get to be a person. But you don’t need someone else—be it a spouse or child—to complete or validate your existence. Being human is enough, and should be enough, and I hope that we all come to a point where we can accept that.”
Stay with Me
By Ayobami Adebayo
272 pages. Knopf
*Cover photo courtesy of Knopf. Ayobami Adebayo photo courtesy of Ayotola.