Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

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°.


15 responses

  1. I know very little about grief. I know very little about Nigerian Lit. except that it seems to produce excellent and distinctive authors. I really do have to widen my reading.

    • Knowing a lot about grief isn’t the best thing to have in your repertoire… consider yourself lucky Bill.

      I don’t know much about Nigerian literature either – most of my reading comes from English speaking countries and Europe. My reading from Asia, Africa and South America is extremely light on. Participating in a reading challenge that sets an 80 country target has been helpful (Although I’m only halfway through after three years).

  2. I read this book a couple of weeks ago, through my library app. It’s a fascinating read – absolutely set in a time and place, but with that universal experience of loss and longing.

  3. I read this when it first came out and what struck me about it was the way in which it explored the problems for both women and men in a society that has traditionally seen anything that’s gone wrong as the fault of the woman. I thought it was a very balanced exploration.

  4. This isn’t one I’m going to read, but I can see how it will be very useful in your counselling work, to understand cultural contexts so different from our own. I am old enough to remember the disapproval of postwar Greek and Italian migrant women when they expressed their grief loudly and demonstratively, at a time when Australians were generally reserved and dignified at funerals, and indeed, men were never seen to cry. Times have changed but it is always the case that it takes a while for us to learn about the cultures of migrants from places we don’t know much about, and this is where fiction comes into its own.

    • Agree. The particularly interesting element in this book was that although there was comfort in the cultural rituals around death, there was also discomfort because of the exposure to friends and family who treated the loss as ‘replaceable’ (ie. have another baby).

      • You’d be surprised at the number of unthinking/ insensitive things people hear when they are bereaved – I guess for the most part the comments are ways to fill an uncomfortable space, although in this story there were a number of significant cultural elements associated with the death of a child.

        In the past, when people have asked me ‘what to say to someone who has lost someone’ I respond with ‘If it sounds like a cliché, like something you’ve heard before, don’t say it. You only need to acknowledge their pain and sit with it if you can.’

  5. Great review. I read this a year or so ago and while there were parts I struggled with it really was such a powerful portrayal of grief and how it tears down a relationship.

  6. I’ve found that saying ‘Would you like to tell me about him/her?’ and then saying ‘What was his/her name?’ to get them started, is well-received. Even with stillborn babies, when you’d think there can’t be much to say, people, will talk about the things we marvel at with living babies, their little fingers, the colour of their hair, who they resembled in the family. With gentle prompts, they’ll talk about the preparations they’ve made, the clothes, and the nursery, and even though they will cry when they talk, it seems to me that this is a good kind of crying, because they are articulating a loss rather than feeling that they ‘ought’ to suppress it.

Leave a Reply to sarahsouthwest Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.