Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo; Ouida Books, Ikeja, Lagos; 2017; 306pp
“I must leave this city today and come to you.” These are the arresting first words of a novel of singular tenderness. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo stays with one in several strange ways. The voice is that of Yejide who is about to leave the city of Jos in North-Central Nigeria in December 2008 to reunite with her lover Akin in the town of Ife in the Southwest. “There’s a house waiting for me in Ife, right outside the university where you and I first met.” Yejide’s serenade makes whole a tremendous journey in longing, deceit, heartbreak, triumph, and all the allied troubles in-between.
From this beginning of hope and reconciliation the novel switches back in time to Ilesa in 1985 when a second wife, Funmi, is unbeknownst to Yejide. presented to Akin by Yejide’s stepmother. The narration then swivels to Akin lamenting on the travails of marrying for four years without any childbirth to crow about. The brand new second wife boasts of the children to be given birth to and Yejide redounds to anger, especially as her mother-in-law is only interested in having a grandchild.
A woman in search of the so-called “fruit of the womb” can fall for any prank. Yejide climbs “the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles” to meet Prophet Josiah who promises a miracle pregnancy. Funmi’s imagined pregnancy gets to all of 11 months without any delivery, and to compound matters the second wife Funmi moves in into the house to make for a crowded marriage.
It’s not my intention to divulge all the plot of Stay With Me here. It only suffices to give the teasers because Ayobami Adebayo has a very intriguing story. There are so many set-pieces, notably: breastfeeding a goat, the birth and death of Olamide, Yejide sleeping with Akin’s younger brother Dotun, the death of Funmi, the birth of Sesan who is eventually diagnosed with sickle-cell anaemia, the doctor telling Akin that he cannot biologically be the father of Sesan, the revelation that Akin actually arranged with Dotun to impregnate Yejide, the death of Sesan, Akin catching Yejide and Dotun in flagrante, the birth of Rotimi, the scepter of a curse, the revelation of the impotence of Akin etc.
The tragedy of impotence has always been a recurrent fare in African literature, especially with the attention given to the subject in JP Clark’s play Song of a Goat. Getting a younger brother to solve the matter of course has its own concourse of issues. In Stay With Me the lightness of touch somewhat offers the subject the requisite aesthetic distance.
The novel has a personal touch with me because I was a student at the then University of Ife back in 1981 when a student was killed and the protest march that followed led to the death of other students. The event is captured in Stay With Me thus: “I was sure that a perfect moment would present itself for me to divorce Funmi, just as one had presented itself for me to marry Yejide in ’81.
Akin’s narration of the act is stark: “The first time Dotun had sex with my wife, I stood in front of the bedroom door and wept. It happened on a Saturday. Funmi was visiting relatives or something. I was supposed to be at the sports club. I thought then that I had the capacity to play tennis or drink beer while my brother tried to get Yejide pregnant. I had it all planned so that by the time I got home, Dotun would have left our room, Yejide would have put on her clothes, and I could act as if I didn’t know what was going on.”
Adebayo’s Stay With Me throbs with realism in the depiction of events that happened in Nigeria within the span of years that the novel covers. The novel has a personal touch with me because I was a student at the then University of Ife back in 1981 when a student was killed and the protest march that followed led to the death of other students. The event is captured in Stay With Me thus: “I was sure that a perfect moment would present itself for me to divorce Funmi, just as one had presented itself for me to marry Yejide in ’81. That year, Bukola Arogundade, a student of the University of Ife, was murdered. This was years before some of the protest marches in the universities would become compulsory, mandated by so-called union boys who chased freshers out of their rooms. The protest in ’81 to demand justice for Bukola Arogundade was pure, propelled by a collective anger that shivered in bloodstreams, an unspoken assurance that if we just got to the palace and screamed loud enough, someone would pay attention.”
In another dimension, the slain journalist Dele Giwa lends to the novel a measure of authenticity as a living tissue in the passage that runs here: “In the months after Dele Giwa had been assassinated, rooms would fall silent with fear whenever his name was mentioned. It did not matter that none of the women in Iya Bolu’s sitting-room was editor-in-chief of a news magazine, Giwa’s fate still felt like something that could befall any of us because the bomb that killed him was delivered to his home in a parcel.”
Incidentally, in the novel when the Gideon Orkar coup against Babangida happens there’s much animation as Akin says: “I told Dotun someone would take this man down. That Dele Giwa matter was too fishy.”
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo is a feast of stories. The love tango of Akin and Yejide is of the stuff that great drama is made. The story is highly cinematic in the very best sense of the word. It is a hip and contemporary novel that compels from the early pages. The major discomfiting aspect comes in the way the first person point-of-view switches between Akin and Yejide without predisposing the reader on the matter. The traditional storytelling of the Ijapa mode is somewhat overdone. The organization of the novel appears rather unwieldy in the accommodation of umpteen characters. These issues do not in any way detract from the attractions of Adebayo’s debut novel.
This is a first novel that throbs with felt life. Ayobami Adebayo writes with a compassion way beyond her age. Her future work deserves to be waited for with bated breath. Stay With Me deserves the multiform accolades it has thus far won across the continents.