Image courtesy of Goodreads
The inclusion of Stay with Me in the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist heightened my expectations for a highbrow literary novel. Upon finishing the novel, however, I was slightly in dismay.
I’m sure many bibliophiles have had the experience of finishing a book and thinking ‘Well, that was enjoyable. Don’t think it was particularly accomplished though.’ If you are anything like me, the thought would be followed by some guilt. No one wants to be a snob. You want to be discerning, but most definitely not a snob. Let’s hope this is a discerning review.
We begin Stay with Me with Yejide and Akin, who have been married a few years. They are a loving and happy Nigerian couple with a modern relationship dynamic. Both work and contribute to the family finances. Their early interactions were marked by respect and reasonable discussions. #relationshipgoals basically, as the kiddos say these days.
That is, until the fateful day Yejide opened her front door to family relatives and a young woman claiming to be Akin’s second wife.
Polygamy was always something Yejide and Akin rejected. Both came from polygamous families and, Yejide especially, suffered from it. Akin’s family were beginning to be impatient for a baby, however, and Yejide had no choice but deal with the new woman’s arrival into her household.
This is where most synopses of Stay with Me end, which was why I expected the novel to be a slow-paced domestic drama dealing with the repercussions of polygamy while providing insights on family dynamics and the larger Nigerian culture. But Stay with Me isn’t that type of family drama. This is a very action-based novel; plot twists are abundant here. I think most reviewers stop describing the plot at the second wife’s arrival to avoid spoiling the story for potential readers. I respect the discretion and have done the same.
The twists and turns in Stay with Me are relentless. They really are too much for any couple to bear, no matter how loving or happy. If your life is a constant struggle against challenges, without hope, sooner or later you’ll get exhausted and even want to give up.
I’m reasonably sure Adebayo plotted these dramatic turns and reveals as catalysts to show Yejide and Akin’s humanity. The near soap-opera plotting should be secondary to Yejide and Akin as characters. For Stay with Me to work, its two elements of excessive drama and authentic humanity needed to balance each other out – unfortunately, the elements never quite cohere together.
Sure, there were moments of sincerity in Stay with Me. A near violent argument between Yejide and Akin seemed to be happening too early in the novel, until you realize that when trust is lost and words have been treated like weapons, a loving relationship degenerates in no time.
If Stay with Me had more scenes highlighting emotional devastation and relationship cracks while paring down the gothic drama, I would love the novel so much more. My favorite line came from a rare moment of contemplation, when Akin reflected on unforeseen consequences:
[A]ll the mess of love and life that only shows up as you go along.
Stay with Me isn’t winning any prizes for poetic prose, but that disarmingly simple line is so honest and true. Life is a cocktail of variables we have no control over. All we can do is do the best we can and be the best person we can, no matter how much things hurt sometimes.
If I were to say Stay with Me is a great novel to take on a red eye flight, is that backhanded praise?
In no way do I advocate reading only esoteric writing. My favorite reads are books that beautifully balance the accessible and the meaty. Alas, while I am sure that was the author’s intention – Stay with Me ended up lacking enough meat to carry the raucous surface.
Despite all my caveats, I await Adebayo’s next fiction endeavor with interest. Adobayo is young, not even 30, and Stay with Me is her debut. I think she set out to write my favorite type of novel, where the readable and the thoughtful blend seamlessly together, but fell a bit short. But Stay with Me displays potential and I am optimistic she has the chops to perfect her craft.