Without even knowing the plot of Stay With Me, the Baileys-longlisted novel, the first scene acts as a precursor for what is to come. Our yet unnamed narrator waits, anticipating something unknown, in an empty room. Its hollowness is painful, infertile, barren, a physical reminder of Yejide’s loneliness: her inability to conceive, the death of her mother in childbirth, her family’s repeated and pointed rejection of her existence. These examples of Yejide’s isolation are revealed far later in the novel, yet the reader is subconsciously aware of this unhappiness within the first pages.
Yejide, despite trying for years, is unable to have a child. For her husband’s family – and for herself – this is unbearable, both socially and personally. She has tried every possible medication, listened to every word of doctor’s advice, followed solemn ceremonies, the charms of locals, and dubious beliefs. It is threatening the relationship with her husband, estranging them from their family, and most significantly, it is breaking Yejide’s spirit.
Yet despite this sadness, Stay With Me is far from a book solely of bland and depressing images. Quickly plunging the reader into the setting of 1980s Nigeria, we are introduced to Yejide’s husband’s new, second wife, a sneering and intimidating woman. Yejide’s desperation for a child takes her to ‘the Mountain of Jaw Dropping Miracles’, where she ritually dances with men in green robes, breast-feeding a goat she has dragged to its pinnacle in a frenzy. We hear childhood stories, passed down generations, of ancient talking trees and pregnant male tortoises. We watch bloody university protests, frozen in fear as they turn violent. Underlying this novel constantly is Yejide’s sadness, her husband Akin’s frustration, but just as they are forced to ignore their true hurt and emotion, the reader is directed to alternative images than their pain.
Fundamentally, however, no matter how much Yejide attempts to avoid her own sadness, there is no escaping her true feelings. Consistently throughout the novel, beneath the surface, is a threatening tension. It is as though, at any moment, the carefully woven threads of Yejide and Akin’s successful life may unravel. At every turn, we are presented with images of brokenness: mugs shatter, roofs fall in, cars stall. There is constant tension between the ancient traditions of the elders, who coerce Akin to take up a second wife, and a modern setting of university educated women and frank discussions of sexuality. The threatening buzz of the radio announces military coups, letters arrive from members of organised crime gangs. The fear and worry never gives in, unrelenting.
To find security against this fear, it is women, not men, who are placed in the key positions of strength. Men fail, are weak, and lose courage. It is women that uplift the story and dictate its narrative. Far from perfect, idealised entities, however, we are also able to see a whole spectrum of female characters that interact with and empower one another in a way that is still often absent in modern novels. From Funmi, Akin’s cruelly manipulative second wife, to Moomi, Akin’s well-meaning but desperate mother, from Iya Bolu, the unshakeable pillar of Yejide’s hairdressing salon, to Yejide’s formidable stepmothers, women are the basis of a story of endurance and pain.
Stay With Me is a story that hopes constantly for a miracle, despite the insistence of hardship and loss.
Yet in spite of this negativity, it sings with a vibrancy and energy that is carried on the shoulders of the women of the story. By the end of the novel, the reader hopes for something that seems impossible – yet with the terrible life Yejide has endured, we cannot help but think she may have earned it.