There’s certainly been a lot of book prize news recently, but The Green Carnation Prize which celebrates books by LGBT authors is an extremely special one! I was honoured to be a judge the last time it was awarded where we selected Marlon James’ epic “A Brief History of Seven Killings” among an extraordinarily good longlist.

The new longlist for books published in 2016 has just been announced and for me it hits the perfect balance between excellent books I’ve read, books I’ve been meaning to read and a couple surprises of books I know very little about. It’s wonderful to see Will Eaves’ incredibly distinctive memoir in fragments recognized alongside David France’s comprehensive and personal account of individuals involved in fighting the AIDS crisis. Kirsty Logan’s stories are so beautifully inventive as is Kei Miller’s richly immersive novel about a community in the outskirts of a Jamaican city. I’m especially pleased to see one of my favourite modern poets John McCullough on the list. And, even though I read Garth Greenwell’s book back in 2015, I still often think about this moving novel which gives such a radical new perspective on desire.

It’ll be exciting to follow the shortlist which will be announced on April 28th and the winner which will be announced on May 22nd. Click on the titles below to read my thoughts about some of the books I’ve already read and reviewed.
What books on the list are you most interested in reading?

London Lies Beneath by Stella Duffy
The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves
How to Survive a Plague by David France
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan
Spacecraft by John McCullough
Augustown by Kei Miller
Where The Trees Were by Inga Simpson
Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd
Our Young Man by Edmund White

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as conflicted about a novel as I am about “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” by Heather O’Neill. This is a book which arrestingly portrays the brutal abuse of women and orphans with the fantastical touch of a fairy tale. It creatively shows how children’s imaginations can colour their world as a defence against the horrors of their reality. The narrative is strewn with fascinating concepts and imagery that made me frequently pause to think about their meaning. Yet, as compelling as I found the writing in this book I felt at times deeply uncomfortable with the way issues such as physical/sexual abuse, prostitution and drug abuse sat within the humorous/whimsical style of the novel. I have no doubt the author takes these issues very seriously and I could feel behind the magical flair a lot of anger for the injustice experienced by vulnerable children, women and the poor. However, I continuously questioned throughout my reading whether this is the most appropriate way to portray traumatic experiences. I think the point was to raise questions and it certainly did that for me. At its heart, this novel is as deeply provocative and unsettling as the highly intelligent fiction of Angela Carter.

“The Lonely Hearts Hotel” begins in the early 1900s with the unfortunate stories of two young mothers whose boy and girl wind up in a Montreal orphanage. The majority of the book follows the development of these children Rose and Joseph (who everyone calls Pierrot). Although boys and girls in the orphanage are kept separate by the strict nuns who oversee them, Rose and Pierrot develop a deep bond and form a curious kind of double-act with acrobatics, dancing and improvised piano playing. The jealousy of a manipulative third party creates a split between the pair and they are finally physically separated when Pierrot is adopted by an encouraging elderly wealthy man and Rose is employed as an indulgent governess to the children of a notorious gangster leader. Their stories spiral into bizarre and surprising adventures that take them through the Great Depression, but are always tinged with the sorrow of their lost burgeoning romance.

It’s so intriguing how O’Neill writes about the experience of childhood. It’s particularly striking how she describes the way adolescents develop their use of language and claim it as their own. She observes how “Although the two had only known harsh terms and words of discipline, they had managed to transform them into words of love.” The way in which the children use words with each other redefines that language as something empowering rather than something used as a weapon to diminish them. They also possess the innate powers of creativity, talent and imagination to build themselves out of the desultory circumstances they were born into.

Throughout Rose’s upbringing she imagines a large bear who dances with her. This image is just as innocently charming as it is alarming suggesting that danger continuously orbits around the girl. This is reinforced by the statement that “A young girl’s body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.” Just as girls are in danger of being violated, the author also shows the way a young boy’s developing body is vulnerable to the predatory control and manipulation of those who are older and in a position of power. The author shows how a boy’s early experiences of sexual abuse continue to affect him throughout his life leading to difficulties with intimacy and drug abuse. I was particularly struck by how she describes his continuous craving for drugs even after he sobers up like a taxidermist’s reanimated wolf corpse which stalks him. It’s no wonder that Rose surmises at one point that “Childhood is such a perverse injustice, I don’t know how anyone survives it without going crazy.” Interestingly, Eimear McBride also considers the long-lasting trauma after a young man’s sexual abuse in an entirely different style within her novel “The Lesser Bohemians” (which is also longlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize).

Along with the stories of Rose and Pierrot's eccentric behaviour, there are scenes where flowers complain to one another and a timid rat expresses his nervousness about moving to the big city. By invoking fantasy, O’Neill appears to be be saying that a childish sense of wonder and ambiguity are essential elements in maintaining a morally just world. People who dominate and attempt to control others believe they are justified in doing so because they are fixed in their own certain reality. She writes: “Perhaps the most dangerous people in the world are the ones who believe in right and wrong but what they ascribe to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is completely insane. They are bad with a conviction that they are good. It is that idea that is the impetus behind evil.” Even though Rose and Pierrot experience the most brutally harsh realities of life, they retain their faith in the power of a youthful creativity which gradually morphs as they grow into sophisticated artistic expressions in music and performance.

Something I have difficulty with in novels that describe ambitious forms of artistic expression are overzealous reactions to those performances. That’s something which happens frequently in this novel which includes children’s acrobatics, avant-garde performances by clowns, an eccentric clown and dance revue and an intricately composed song. They all enthral anyone who experiences them. Although large crowds can certainly be enraptured by great art, it becomes slightly irksome reading about the success rate for every kind of performance in this novel which elicits over-enthused reactions. This doesn't take into account the grounding factors of artistic failure and the general indifference of the general public - which is sadly more often the result of creative endeavours.

Rose is such a compellingly forthright character. She explores what intrigues her, exudes a large amount of charm and shows an intellectual savviness. Not only does she fearless do what's necessary to survive enormous difficulties but maintains her principles at the same time. Then there is a prostitute who is (appropriately) named Poppy who is a habitual drug user and continuously takes the wrap for other prostitutes. She exhibits a masochism where “She wanted the ugly rage and depravity that came with love.” O’Neill writes in a really fascinating way about women's relationships with their bodies, sex and rivalry with other women.

I have a feeling I'm going to be puzzling over this novel for a lot longer. I felt delighted by how bizarre it was at points, but also unsettled by how casually it could draw in very dark themes. It certainly goes to show me that I shouldn't judge a book by it's cover. Since I hadn't read this author before or anything about this novel when I'd previously seen “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” I thought by the name and the cover that it'd be a frivolously sentimental novel, but it has a lot of deep twisted depths to it. The Baileys Women's Prize longlist invariably introduces me to a book I wouldn't have read otherwise, but gives me a lot to think about. I'll be particularly interested to hear what other people who have read this novel think.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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History must be filled with gay love stories whether they were lived in secret or in the open. Although literature and history books are filled with heterosexual love stories, few stories of same-sex couples have been passed down through generations. So I think one of the great opportunities of historical fiction can be to imagine the lives and stories which we have no record of and that have, most probably, been selectively left out of history. Recent novels such as “Hide” by Matthew Griffin and “A Place Called Winter” by Patrick Gale have meaningfully explored stories of long-term gay relationships and the unique challenges and opportunities they faced in their respective time periods. Sebastian Barry does the same in “Days Without End” with the story of an Irishman named Thomas McNulty who escapes the Irish famine to become a soldier in 19th century America where he meets another handsome soldier named John Cole. But Barry’s inspiration for this novel comes from a specific incident and takes a very unique slant on a historical gay relationship.

I saw Barry give a reading from this novel and he explained how some time ago he noticed that his son was becoming increasingly depressed. One day the son finally confessed to Barry and his wife that he’s gay and he experienced a lot of prejudice for this. So part of what Barry wanted to do in this story was imagine a time and place where his son could have a loving same-sex relationship, build a family and not have to live with the institutionalized prejudices of today’s society. This may seem contradictory when many Western countries have increasingly liberal laws about gay rights, but these values don’t always filter down into smaller communities - especially among teenagers. Barry feels that there were different kinds of opportunities for gay couples in mid-1800s America to live (if not entirely openly) more peacefully without today’s virulent prejudice. Of course, homosexuality wasn’t openly condoned and people faced many other life-threatening challenges during this politically turbulent time as he recounts in detail in the novel. Thomas states how “We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.”

This is the first novel I’ve read by Sebastian Barry, but I understand it’s part of a group of books that deal with the McNulty family. It seems like a novel that can stand entirely independent on its own without having read the others. Thomas arrives in America without any connection to his relatives except for the memories of their slowly dying which haunts him later in the book. Here he must forge a future for himself entirely on his own and one of the few work opportunities available to a young man such as himself was to become a soldier in the US military. He’s sent to fight in the bloody battles of the Indian War and then later with the North during the American Civil War. The overwhelming impression of Thomas’ impassioned and vivid accounts of these conflicts is how they are populated by soldiers who are victims of their circumstances; they are fighting in wars not out of ideological convictions but because they have no other choice.

It’s particularly moving how Barry writes about the way Thomas is mindful of “the enemy.” He observes that “There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy; that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.” Like all wars, the armies are filled with young men trapped in the conflicts of history. It’s easier for them to fight without conscience when the opposition is markedly different from them such as the Native Americans they fought against. However, Thomas takes a different perspective when battling against the armies of the South which were also in part made of young immigrants or the sons of immigrants: “It is not like running at Indians who are not your kind but it is running at a mirror of yourself. Those Johnny Rebs are Irish, English and all the rest.” Barry really movingly portrays the consciousness of this soldier caught in these battles who is in some fundamental way only killing other versions of himself.

The novel also gives a fascinating perspective on gender and sexuality. Hyper-masculine environments such as army camps and mining towns found improvised ways of providing men with romantic/erotic stimulation. Thomas and John join a sort of cabaret where they entertain audiences of men while dressed in drag. This allows for transformations to occur: “In Mr Noone’s hall you just was what you seemed. Acting ain’t no subterfuge-ing trickery. Strange magic changing things. You thinking along some lines and so you become that new thing.” There’s a kind of liberation in this where people aren’t constricted by traditional identity markers but can become what they want to be. It also provides crucial training for Thomas when later in the story he can utilize passing as a woman to disguise himself. Equally, it’s poignant how Thomas contemplates his own sexuality and feminine qualities where he considers these to be “Just a thing that’s in you and you can’t gainsay.” While the meaning of conflicts being fought in the battlefields remains ambiguous for Thomas, the conviction he and John feel about their desire and love for each other is certain.

History consists of a series of neatly organized dates. The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865 but you can’t begin to feel the experience by just reading this. One of the most powerful things about Costa Book Awards winner "Days Without End" is the extremely dramatic sense Barry gives to the soldier’s experience who doesn’t know when this conflict will end. For Thomas “World is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicory drinking and whisky and cards. No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars.” They are perpetually caught in an uncertain present. Barry writes strikingly about this sense a high-stakes moment with no end to it. The dramatic tension builds throughout the novel as the reader wonders if Thomas will have any future other than this.

Many book award lists have been announced recently, but one I’m particularly excited about is The British Book Awards or Nibbies. I was kindly asked to be one of the judges in the Fiction category and it’s a cracking list. I’ve reviewed most of these books and you can read my thoughts about them by clicking on the title links below or watch my handy video giving short summaries of the prize and each novel listed. It’s going to be very interesting meeting with the judges soon to choose a winner as the novels are a diverse group of contenders. It’s also worth noting there are many more interesting nominations on the Bookseller's British Book Awards site in other book categories as well as in publishing categories from literary agents to booksellers to libraries. I’m particularly excited by the Debut Fiction category as I’ve extremely enjoyed three books on that list: The Girls by Emma Cline, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon and What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell. Winners will be chosen in each book category and then on May 8th, the night of the awards ceremony, an overall winner will be crowned. I’d really like your opinions so if you’ve read some of these books who do you think should win?

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Muse by Jessie Burton
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Cartes Postales From Greece by Victoria Hislop
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Debut Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Debut Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

A novel about a reclusive ex-film star may sound like it will focus on sensational glamour rather than an emotionally-effective story, but “This Must Be the Place” is engrossing and extremely moving. Maggie O'Farrell creates a woman named Claudette who walks away from her famous director husband and a successful acting career to live in the remotest possible Ireland retreat and weaves her tale into the stories of many other fascinating characters. Most notably it charts her relationship with Daniel who deals with the complicated family he had with his first wife, an unresolved secret from his past and a growing substance abuse problem. Each chapter focuses on a specific character related to this couple. It leapfrogs back and forth through time to form impressions of their dramatic and tumultuous lives. The cumulative effect of this very readable novel is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the way chance and coincidence influence the most important decisions of our lives.

 

In one section, Daniel and his son Niall travel to the eerie and unusual salt flats of South America.

In one section, Daniel and his son Niall travel to the eerie and unusual salt flats of South America.

O'Farrell has a fascinating way of mapping out the lives of her characters in this novel. Each chapter is sub-headed by a name, year and location so you know with certainty where you are, but only through the course of the narrative do you understand why this point matters so much. The focus varies from stories about Daniel’s son Niall’s painful struggles with a severe eczema condition at a special dermatological clinic to Claudette’s sister-in-law Maeve’s journey to China to adopt a daughter. Through these fascinating individual stories we gain impressions of what’s happening in Daniel and Claudette’s lives as well. My only quibble is I wish the author had included a section on Daniel’s first wife rather than so many peripheral characters towards the end. It felt like she was the only major character that remained sketchily drawn where the others were fully rounded. Multiple sections are told from Daniel’s point of view as he seems to have the most trouble finding where he really belongs. However, the only section which focuses on Claudette’s perspective is narrated in the second person so, although we’re entirely with her, we remain outside her consciousness. This distancing effect from her character is mirrored in another section where we’re given photographs of vital objects from her film career that are being auctioned, but which cleverly tell the story of her relationship with the cerebral Scandinavian film director Timou.

I think people who enjoy Anne Tyler’s books would also really appreciate this novel. O'Farrell has a similar way of realistically portraying the quirks, humour and heartache of family life. She also touches upon the complex way we come to define ourselves through the perspectives of others. In particular, she beautifully describes the way those who love us see us in an idealistic light which in turn reinforces our own self confidence: “What redemption there is in being loved: we are always our best selves when loved by another.” The story meaningfully shows how complex relationships can be and that we’ll inevitably follow lots of indirect paths in life, but how powerfully changed we are when honest connections are made. “This Must Be the Place” is a skilfully written novel with a lot of heart.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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What an immensely pleasurable joy it is reading “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry! I’ve been eagerly anticipating this novel since it was first published last year. I heard such high praise from friends and reviewers I trust and it was Waterstone’s book of the year. I’m greatly relieved that it lives up to the hype. This richly detailed Victorian-set novel with gothic inflections and distinctly vibrant characters gives the feeling of a modern-day book by Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot. Set over a year it follows the widow Cora Seaborne’s excursion to the rural Essex village of Aldwinter which buffets the edge of the gloomy Blackwater marshes. Cora has amateur archaeological inclinations and becomes excited by the secrets this location might hold after rumours and paranoia spread among the inhabitants that a prehistoric beast roams the waters. Strange sightings are reported, bodies are found, children turn hysterical and people go missing. It’s full of suspense as the mystery gradually unfolds, but also skilfully presents competing ideologies of science vs religion and reason vs faith through the actions and sensibilities of the characters. More importantly it shows how these perspectives aren’t necessarily dogmatic and that “far from there being one truth alone, there may be several truths, none of which it would be possible to prove or disprove.” This is a novel which delivers highly on adventure and romance to form an intelligent, moving story.

Cora experiences a sense of independence and freedom now that she’s released from her marriage. She no longer makes much effort with her appearance and can pursue what solely interests her. In particular, she feels liberated from gender constrictions stating “The wonderful thing about being a widow is that, really, you’re not obliged to be much of a woman anymore.” This allows her to express her intelligence and also begin to understand what she desires for the first time (rather than always projecting what her late husband desired.) She’s accompanied by her longtime companion Martha, an ardent socialist who harbours a secret attraction to Cora. At Aldwinter Cora is introduced to the local reverend William Ransome and his luminous wife Stella. The burgeoning romantic relationship that develops between Cora and William is especially interesting because it’s based primarily on their different ideas and competing perspectives as well as physical attraction. Perry is especially good at portraying the complexity of relationships where the boundaries of gender and friendship are blurred.

Although the novel is framed around the notorious gigantic serpent which may or may not be terrorizing the villagers, it’s more about what reality people choose to believe. Some ascribe to values based around superstition, others live by principles from religious texts and others aspire to forge a new understanding of the world based upon scientific findings. What Perry does so magnificently is imbue how the characters perceive their environment based on these perspectives of the world. To Martha who is cognizant of social and economic imbalances “It seemed… that the city’s bricks were red with the blood of its citizens, its mortar pale with the dust of their bones; that deep in its foundations women and children lay head-to-toe in buried ranks, bearing up the city on their backs.” But wealthy George Spencer who dabbles in the medical field expresses that “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” While Cora, with her faith in archaeological discovery, feels that “all the earth was a graveyard with gods and monsters under their feet, waiting for weather or a hammer and brush to bring them up to a new kind of life.” These views of the world around them overlap and form a complex picture of not only the changing landscape, but the evolution of the people and wildlife that inhabited it.

Based on the legend of the Essex Serpent which first appeared in a local pamphlet in 1669

Based on the legend of the Essex Serpent which first appeared in a local pamphlet in 1669

Alongside the compelling story and complex characters, the novel is especially enjoyable for the deeply emotive language Perry uses in her descriptions. At some times she expresses a Virginia Woolf-like sensibility where a room literally comes alive when the characters enter it: “Light picked out channels cut in crystal glasses and glossed the polished wood of the table, and Stella’s forget-me-nots bloomed on their napkins.” The descriptions show a playful use of language and convey a very definite sense of mood. I don’t think I’ve read about such a powerfully expressive sense of atmosphere since Andrew Michael Hurley’s eerie and suspenseful “The Loney”. It’s also impressive how this keen sense of detail brings to life the natural environment of Essex which is a county that is somewhat forgotten or maligned these days.

It would be easy to write a lot about many of the other fascinating characters that populate this novel. It feels like Cora’s son Francis may have some form of autism as he has a regimentally ordered mind and emotionally detached personality. Cora’s friend Luke Garrett is a surgeon who pioneers controversial new practices. The ginger-haired girl Naomi Banks possesses unruly powers and passions. Stella and William’s precocious daughter Joanna understands how exerting authority with confidence can get people to follow you. Their lives intersect in fascinatingly dramatic ways, but I don’t want to go into too much detail to avoid giving the plot away. Suffice it to say, the fact that they are so memorable is a testament to how distinctly original Perry makes her characters. Many surprises and delights are to be found in this book. “The Essex Serpent” is as intricate and beautiful as its cover.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Perry
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Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut novel “Spaceman of Bohemia” has been compared to the extremely popular novel “The Martian” but Kalfar’s novel is far superior. I understand the comparison: both novels are about lone men in space whose solitary “Robinson Crusoe” style adventures find them stranded on their journeys of exploration. While it's enjoyable for some of the plot and scientific detail I thought “The Martian” mostly came across as repetitive and it's suffused with a particularly foul stench of macho bravado. By contrast, “Spaceman of Bohemia” is thoughtful, continuously compelling and says something intelligent about the progress of civilization.

The hero is Jakub Procházka, an astrophysicist with a speciality in cosmic dust which makes him the perfect candidate for the Czech Republic’s first mission into outer space. A comet from another galaxy has streamed through our own solar system leaving a curious cloud between Venus and Earth which has stained our night time sky purple. An opportunistic Czech minister sees a chance for his nation to enter the space race and collect samples of this strange material by sending Jakub on his solitary mission on a second-hand space shuttle. The results are bizarrely thrilling, unexpected and turn into a personal journey which prompts Jakub to survey his position in his own nation’s tumultuous history.

Jakub's journey turns him into a national hero which is particularly significant because of his family's tumultuous history. His father was a Soviet Union stooge when the country was under Communist rule. He engaged in such nefarious activities such as ratting out on neighbours and torturing anti-government prisoners. When the communist regime collapsed in 1989 Jakub's father lost his status and power. Even peripheral members of the family such as Jakub and his grandparents were vilified and discriminated against because of his father's actions. In a particularly harrowing scene they are forced to leave their house: “We leave books that have escaped Austro-Hungarian burnings, German burnings, Stalinist burnings, books that have kept the language alive while regimes attempted to starve it out. We can bring only so much.” This gives a powerful sense of the struggles of common people who've lived in this country which has been bandied back and forth in the fight for political power. The sad result is a gradual deterioration of culture and traditions.

Jakub and Lenka have intimate scenes at the Prague Astronomical Clock - the oldest working astronomical clock in the world.

Jakub and Lenka have intimate scenes at the Prague Astronomical Clock - the oldest working astronomical clock in the world.

The hope is that Jakub's mission will radically transform the Czech Republic into a leading nations of the world – a dream that quickly sours. Over the course of his dramatic expedition it becomes clear that this journey is much more soul-searching than Jakub first thought. The novel meaningfully considers personal ambition versus personal wellbeing and the private life versus the public life. It's observed how “In one book, your father is a hero. In another book, he is a monster. The men who don’t have books written about them have it easier.” Rather than remaining anonymous, Jakub embarks on making himself into the pride of the nation to eclipse his father's shame, but he loses his beloved wife Lenka in the process. Amidst the dramatic action of his space journey he considers his life with her and what he's lost by letting the weight of his family and his nation's history overwhelm him.

Kalfar is particularly good at enhancing his story with a lot of grit and humour while steering the plot into unexpected avenues. Things get bizarre; there is a lighthearted tension between Jakub's physical and psychological reality. But the story meaningfully shows his gradual growth as an individual emotionally reckoning with the past. Along his journey the book captures all the majesty and wonder of the solar system in a way which manages to be both probingly philosophical and highly playful. It considers the elements of chance, time and how “The slightest gesture makes up our history.” “Spaceman of Bohemia” is a vibrantly pleasurable read that provokes lingering questions about identity and destiny – as well as giving you a craving for jar of Nutella.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJaroslav Kalfar
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Rarely have the social pressures to produce children been conveyed with such intensity as in Adébáyọ̀'s debut novel “Stay With Me”. Yejide and Akin are an intelligent, beautiful and prosperous couple living in modern day Nigeria. In the year 1985 it looks like they are set for a promising future, but no matter how hard the couple try they cannot conceive a child. The narrative alternates between the points of view of Yejide and Akin. They convey the multi-faceted strains on their relationship as their family and society demand that they produce children. They go to extreme measures to do so and there are multiple shocking plot twists along the way. Amidst the personal crisis that this couple experience, the political leadership of the country is in a precarious state forcing them to make choices which they wouldn't in more stable circumstances. This well-paced drama skilfully conveys the different dilemmas faced by women and men when the importance of conceiving children is placed above all else.

Although Yejide is an educated woman who runs a successful beauty salon it's the perception of her husband's family that Akin financially supports her. No matter how capable she is the fact that she's a woman will always place her at a lower status to that of the man. The overwhelming impression over the course of the novel is that according to the family Yejide's body is not her own, but merely an instrument to bring in the next generation. It's typical for couples to feel under strain from the previous generation to produce children, but the interference here is so much greater where Yejide is subjected to physical examinations from the family and they arrange for Akin to have a second wife when she doesn't become pregnant quickly enough. The worst challenges Yejide faces to her relationship are from Akin's mother and Funmilayo, the woman selected as Akin's second wife. It's a sad consequence of a patriarchal social system that women begin to oppress each other and feel that they must compete with one another.

Even when a woman has a child her body and life are not her own. It's perceived that “a mother does not do what she wants, she does what is best for her child.” So whether she has a child or not, Yejide never feels like she fully controls her own destiny. Matters are not helped when Yejide's own family line is uncertain because her mother died early in her life. She states “the point was that when there was no identifiable lineage for a child, that child could be descended from anything. Even dogs, witches or strange tribes with bad blood.” Yejide's own father had multiple wives and no matter how much she's favoured by the man, the fact that her mother's lineage is unclear makes her a rogue element in this family line. When social status is such an important factor it doesn't matter how capable an individual is; without a strong family tree to support you you will always be condemned.

While the challenges for a woman in this society are manifold, the author equally shows the enormous expectations and problems faced by men. Akin is fiercely in love with Yejide and truly only desires her, but he's pressured to accept Funmilayo as a second wife whether he wants to or not. This compels him to treat her badly and although Funmilayo is presented as a scheming individual, I felt sympathetic to her precarious position. The author also dramatically shows the depths a man will sink to in order to conceal his vulnerability. The demand that he produce a child compels Akin to plot against and lie to his wife. Gradually the levels of deception and self-deception are revealed over the course of the story. The characters are under such strain to perform correctly in their social roles they begin to convince themselves that the reality of the situation is different from what it is. It's observed how “the biggest lies are often the ones we tell ourselves.”

When reading this novel I was reminded of Lisa McInerney's novel “The Glorious Heresies” which also has a tragic romance at its centre. Although these two novels are set in very different societies, they both show the insidious way the dominant ideologies of their countries put undo pressure on personal relationships. “Stay With Me” contains a gripping story that intelligently portrays the longterm destruction of a relationship from choices made under pressure from the family and community that surround Yejide and Akin. Although it contains a lot of serious and compelling themes, the story is full of such vibrant characters and fascinating surprises it's a very pleasurable read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAyobami Adebayo
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