Trigger warning: miscarriage and death of a child.
One thing that I have observed in my counselling work is that the grief associated with the death of a child is unfathomable, and that it changes families (for generations) in a way that is also unfathomable.
Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is a deeply tragic story, which examines the yearning and grief experienced by Yejide and her husband, Akin.
I was not strong enough to love when I could lose again, so I held her loosely, with little hope, sure that somehow she too would manage to slip from my grasp.
The backdrop is Nigeria in the eighties, when coups and elections create unrest in daily life. For Yejide and Akin, a modern and educated couple, the expectations of family and the cultural context of these expectations also contribute to their unrest.
Women manufacture children and if you can’t you are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.
After four years of marriage with no baby, Akin’s family take matters into their own hands – Akin’s mother arrives at their house with another wife for her son (who Yejide discovers Akin has secretly married), and Yejide visits a medicine man for a ‘cure’ for her infertility. Akin is also desperate for a baby – not to appease his family, but because he knows Yejide wants one more than anything – and seeks ways of ‘solving’ the problem. Yejide and Akin’s desperation comes at a great cost.
I cried throughout the night as hard as I could. I held my head and tried to cry out the pain… For about six hours after I woke up, I thought my tears had washed my pain and guilt away. I did not know then that that was impossible.
I will not share anything more about the plot – there are plenty of twists and turns. The most interesting part of the story was the multi-faceted examination of grief. In particular, how grief is often obscured by other strong emotions – anger, shame, anxiety. There’s a saying that goes ‘I sat with my anger longer enough, until she told me her real name is grief.’ Akin comes to realise this by the end of story, acknowledging that his rage had been a defence against shame – “Anger is easier than shame” – and that his shame capped his grief.
I also enjoyed Adébáyọ̀̀’s examination of contemporary versus traditional values. Yejide and Akin viewed themselves as ‘modern’, and therefore polygamy was not something they saw as part of their future. Equally, Yejide sought traditional medicine when they had exhausted the advice of Western doctors. In times of stress, turning to the spiritual beliefs that you were brought up with, even if they have been largely absent from a person’s life for many years, is a common experience – in Stay With Me, it is poignant given the drivers, and enhanced by glimpses of Yejide’s own experience of growing up in a house with multiple wives.
3/5 Interesting and quite intense.
I received my copy of Stay With Me from the publisher, Canongate Books, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
I drove to Ijesa Sports Club, tried to eat catfish pepper soup. When I got back home, Yejide was in bed, curled up, blubbering about something I couldn’t make out.
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (Jun 3): Belfast 9°-16° and Melbourne 10°-16°.