When I think of Stay with Me, and this might be cliché, I think of that Toni Morrison quote: write the book that you would love to read. Stay with Me is the caliber of book I loved reading—and would love to write. Not necessarily the same plot or the same themes or the same style, but rather the way Ayobami mashes all these elements together to produce a fine story that keeps you riveted to the page from beginning to end.
I read Stay with Me over a three day period – from a Saturday to a Tuesday a few days into the new year. I had had it on my Goodreads to-read folder and I believe it is that comment by my college pal, Rachel, that nudged me towards its direction. I convinced Sheila, my girlfriend, to read it with me. Influencing Sheila to read over the past several years we’ve been together is probably one of the best love stories never told, but we shall not be telling it today.
Now, I have never written legit reviews and one of the things I have feared about writing reviews—which has frozen my review writing for years—is how to properly write a review without giving any of the story away. Or rather, some of the story away. Is that even possible: to talk about a story without talking the story? I will try my best but if I spill some details you’d rather not see, I beg your apology and you have my permission to skip that sentence. I need to move away from inaction and get that goal I set myself at the beginning of last year—to make notes of and review books I read—rolling. It’s never too late to begin.
So what made Ayobami’s book a book I would love to read and write? Chiefly, the story. She was focused on telling the story. Every element of the novel—from the setting to the language to the points of view—was about showing us how Yejide and Akin’s love and marriage grapples with the “curse” of childlessness (in a patriarchal society that places the burden on the woman). The prose is arresting, the language is perfect and the descriptions are apt. More importantly though, all these don’t just exist for their own sake; they advance the story and that is what keeps the reader going. While Ayobami inserts some details of what’s happening in Nigeria as the story unfolds (primarily the Nigerian military coups of the 80s), these details don’t feel belabored. Like everything else, they are servants—not masters—to the main story. Few writers manage this fine balance (something I would love to learn).
Secondly, I loved how everything in the story felt urgent but not rushed. I would attribute this partly to the shifts in the narrators’ perspective—from Yejide (third/first/second person) to Akin (third/first/second person) to a neutral third person—and partly to the jumps in time and tenses. For a debutant, Ayobami certainly did a expert job of balancing the perspectives of the different characters by allowing them to tell their own stories. As such, all her characters are alive and layered. As readers, we react to this with more understanding and empathy for them. We see why they do what they do. Even when we do not agree with their beliefs or actions, we feel why they pursue them. And isn’t that the main goal of reading fiction? Fiction’s prime contribution to human civilization (more necessary today more that ever): to inhabit the souls and lives of others, to feel what they feel and see their motivations in the hope that we can understand those different from us in real life.
This review would be incomplete if I did not talk about language. I made blue highlights whenever I encountered a sentence I wish I wrote first—and now my whole book is blue. There are simple sentences that feel deep and literary in their simplicity. They abound in this novel. I have always admired how Nigerian writers use the simpliest of language to turn phrases that leave a pleasant aftertaste in your mental tongue. Whether it’s Chinua with the metaphors and the proverbs or Chimamanda with her vivid descriptions, imagery and humor, our West African counterparts can teach us a few things about language and storytelling. Ayobami perpetuates this golden tradition. I am especially in awe of the way she infuses the novel with oral narratives which create pleasant echo chambers. Like the story of Ijapa (the tortoise), Iyannibo (his barren wife) and Babalawo (the medicine man) or story of Oluronbi and the Iroko, the king of trees; stories that the characters heard from their parents growing up which they pass to their children and, inadvertently, to us.
Finally, there is also something to be said about the novel’s success despite breaking the mould of immigrant (Western gaze) literature that has been the fodder of African literary discussions lately. While I am certainly not in the “I am done reading African immigrant literature” camp (probably because I will be writing some as traveling and living abroad is a critical part of my experience), I understand the concerns of that camp. African literature that has thrived in the past several decades—the Americanahs, the Ghana Must Go, the We Need New Names, the Homegoings, etc—has mostly been a literature of our people’s encounters with the West. I love these stories because they speak to me. When I read Americanah during a finals week before it even came out in the US in 2013, I did so with love because I understood Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s experience. But these stories are not the only stories that Africans have. So I am not surprised at us when we cheer small town stories where the characters are everyday people, not heroes, like Yejide and Akin and Dotun and Iya Bolu and Mooma. Because we need more stories like these and the system sometimes seems rigged against them. They are the underdogs of African literature—and they matter too.