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.