Review: Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

During my read through the Baileys Prize longlist, it has been interesting to see which themes have emerged across the various novels. Unconventional relationships has been a major one, from Hortense and Marion in The Woman Next Door to Eily and Stephen in The Lesser Bohemians; they are characters in unexpected circumstances and their lives changed by the people they find themselves with. Which brings us to Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s extraordinary Stay With Me. 

Set against the backdrop of a turbulent political period in 1980s Nigeria, Stay With Me never lets its reader get comfortable. Adébáyò refuses to keep her story moving in an expected direction. She drops in twists and reveals with little announcement to great effect and without it ever feeling exploitative. Stay With Me becomes a domestic thriller, where the protagonists aren’t spies or investigative journalists, but two people facing extraordinary social pressure to have their own family and keep their marriage alive.

On the surface, Yejide and Akin are just another married couple who fell in love while Yejide was at university. The couple are trying for a baby but unfortunately, despite their best efforts, a child has yet to arrive. It is decided that Akin should marry another woman, one who is more likely to provide him with a son. Yejide naturally does not take the news very well and the resentment builds up into a tale of jealousy and betrayal that will have ramifications for decades to come.

The use of the two perspectives within the marriage, Yejide and Akin, gives that thriller and intensely intimate feel. We watch as Yejide breaks down as a result of her mothers’ marital machinations, as Akin takes increasingly desperate steps to keep their relationship together, and as fault lines start to fracture. Adébáyò plays with subjectivity beautifully across the two characters. Events which seem innocuous to Akin are of great significance to Yejide and vice versa, flipping the reader’s sympathies from chapter to chapter.

As with the other unconventional relationships explored in the novels of the longlist, to read Stay With Me is to have your emotions toyed with, your understanding undercut. It’s a masterful examination of a marriage under pressure and a world which threatens to shift at any second.