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Review: Portrait of a Nigerian marriage in a heartbreaking debut novel

Below is Michiko Kakutani's final book review for the New York Times.

The two narrators of Ayobami Adebayo's stunning debut novel — a Nigerian woman named Yejide and her husband, Akin — remember the stories they heard when they were children, and they hope to pass on these stories to their own sons and daughters. They are folk tales featuring talking animals and magic potions, but while they often come with an old-fashioned moral ("He who has children owns the world"), Yejide devises her own versions, adding new bits and pieces as she goes along, turning them into allegories that speak to her own life and that of her country.

Like those fables, Adebayo's Stay With Me — a beautifully produced book with a Matisse-inspired jacket that felicitously captures the spirit of the author's writing — has a remarkable emotional resonance and depth of field. It is, at once, a gothic parable about pride and betrayal; a thoroughly contemporary — and deeply moving — portrait of a marriage; and a novel, in the lineage of great works by Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, that explores the pull in Nigeria between tradition and modernity, old definitions of masculinity and femininity, and newer imperatives of self-definition and identity.

Beginning in the 1980s, a period of political tumult in Nigeria, and moving on through 2008, Stay With Me fluently explores the interface between the personal and the political, and the precariousness of stability and safety in both realms: how public events — be they elections, protests or coups — take place while people are getting on with their daily lives, eating or opening a window, fighting with a spouse or taking care of a sick child; how dreams, ideals and romantic relationships can be shaped by distant but momentous developments on the national stage.

Adebayo — who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and who studied with Adichie and Margaret Atwood — has two master's degrees in creative writing, and Stay With Me is deeply informed by a knowledge of contemporary and classic literature.

But while readers may pick up on this novel's many allusions and borrowings (for instance, its nods to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, in creating a stereoscopic portrait of a marriage), Stay With Me feels entirely fresh, thanks to its author's ability to map tangled familial relationships with nuance and precision, and her intimate understanding of her characters' yearnings, fears and self-delusions.

Stay With Me pivots around a series of secrets Akin has kept from his wife — and the terrible, unspooling consequences those secrets will have on their marriage, and on the life of Akin's importunate brother Dotun. The novel's one flaw is that it's hard for the reader to believe that Yejide, however naïve she might be, would not have immediately grasped the first of Akin's lies, but Adebayo's orchestration of the emotional chain reaction set off by those deceptions is so assured that this stumbling block is soon forgotten.

Akin tells us that he loved Yejide from the moment he met her, but four years of childless marriage blunted his belief that "love could do anything": "If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love."

When they married, both Yejide and Akin said no to polygamy, but as years pass without a child, their relatives insist that Akin take a second wife, Funmi. Yejide is told to accept Funmi as a "younger sister," a "friend," a "daughter." Akin's mother cruelly says: "Women manufacture children and if you can't you are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman." She goes on: "We are not asking you to stand up from your place in his life, we are just saying you should shift so that someone else can sit down."

Yejide, whose own mother died in childbirth, becomes desperate to have a baby. She gets hospital tests, and the names of doctors, pastors and herbalists. In one sad, comic sequence, she treks up the "Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles" to visit a healer named Prophet Josiah, who has her dance with a white goat she's dragged to the summit as his chanting followers swarm her. She soon believes she's pregnant, despite doctors' insistence that there is no baby.

These events are recounted with a mix of sympathy, humor and suspense, but as the novel progresses, it shifts into a more minor key, as Yejide does become pregnant, only to face the prospect of sickle cell disease in her children. Instead of bringing the couple closer together, this fear accelerates the fissures in their marriage, as Yejide realizes that Akin has withheld painful truths from her from the start — that she had refused to see "things standing in plain view." It's a realization that forces her to question traditional attitudes toward women in Nigeria — including the primacy of motherhood and deference toward their husbands — and to try to sort out her own expectations from those she's inherited from her family and society.

Adebayo, who is 29, is an exceptional storyteller. She writes not just with extraordinary grace but with genuine wisdom about love and loss and the possibility of redemption. She has written a powerfully magnetic and heartbreaking book.

Stay With Me

By Ayobami Adebayo

Alfred A. Knopf, 260 pages, $25.95

Review: Portrait of a Nigerian marriage in a heartbreaking debut novel 08/03/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 2, 2017 11:15am]
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