Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo

“Women manufacture children and if you can’t you are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.”

On balance, I’m glad that the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist reading forced me to go back and give Stay with Me another try. Last year I read the first 15% of this debut novel for a potential BookBrowse review but got bored with the voice and the story, rather unfairly dismissing it as a rip-off of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I also doubted that the health theme was strong enough for it to make the Wellcome shortlist, but that’s because I hadn’t read far enough to realize just how many medical conditions come up for consideration: it’s not just infertility, but also false pregnancy, cot death (or SIDS), sickle cell disease, and impotence.

This time around I found Yejide a more sympathetic character. The words that open this review are cruel ones spoken by her mother-in-law. Her desperation to become and stay a mother drives her to extreme measures that also give a window onto indigenous religion in Nigeria: ‘breastfeeding’ a goat on the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, and allowing an act of ritual scarification to prevent the return of an abiku, or spirit child (I’ve heard that one narrates Ben Okri’s Booker Prize-winning 1991 novel, The Famished Road).

Polygamy is another Nigerian custom addressed in the novel. Yejide’s husband, Akinyele Ajayi, allows himself to be talked into taking another wife, Funmilayo, when Yejide hasn’t produced a child after four years. There’s irony in the fact that polygyny is considered a valid route to pregnancy while polyandry is not, and traditional versus Western values are contrasted in the different generations’ reactions to polygamy: does it equate to adultery?

There are some welcome flashes of humor in the novel, such as when Yejide deliberately serves a soup made with three-day-old beans and Funmi gets explosive diarrhea. I also enjoyed the ladies’ gossip at Yejide’s hair salon. However, the story line tends towards the soap operatic, and well before halfway it starts to feel like just one thing after another: A lot happens, but to no apparent purpose. I was unconvinced by the choices the author made in terms of narration (split between Yejide and Akin, both in first person but with some second person address to each other) and structure (divided between 2008 and the main action starting in the 1980s). We see certain scenes from both spouses’ perspective, but that doubling doesn’t add anything to the overall picture. The writing is by turns maudlin (“each minute pregnant with hope, each second tremulous with tragedy”) and uncolloquial (“afraid that my touch might … careen him into the unknown”).

Things that at first seemed insignificant to me – the 1993 election results, what happens to Funmi, the one major scene set in 2008 – do eventually take on more meaning, and there is a nice twist partway through as well as a lovely surprise at the end. I did feel the ache of the title phrase as it applies to this couple’s children and marriage, so threatened by “all the mess of love and life that only shows up as you go along.” It all makes for truly effortless reading that I gobbled up in chunks of 50 or 100 pages – which indicates authorial skill, of course – yet this seems to me a novel more interesting for the issues it addresses than for its story and writing.

My rating:

 

See also:

Clare’s review

 

My gut feeling: I would be very surprised if a novel won two years in a row. While the medical situations examined here are fairly wrenching, Stay with Me isn’t strong enough to win. Its appearance on the shortlist (for the Women’s Prize, too) is honor enough, I think.

 

Shortlist strategy:

  • I’m one-third through The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman but have started skimming because it’s dense and not quite as laymen-friendly as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Emperor of All Maladies, the two books its subject matter is most reminiscent of for me.
  • On Friday I started To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell, which I’m also one-third through and have taken away on our mini-holiday. This is the shortlisted book whose topic appealed to me the least, so I’m pleasantly surprised to be enjoying it so much. It helps that O’Connell comes at the science as an outsider – he’s a freelance writer with a literature background, and he’s interested in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises.
  • I’m awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.
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21 thoughts on “Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo

  1. Interesting review – I’m not sure it sounds like a prize-winner although it’s good that it addresses these issues in a contemporary light. It’s interesting how people in any culture will cling onto various things that seem illogical outside that tiny world when trying to combat medical issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s what I think the novel did best: show the strange and desperate things people will do to solve their problems. I don’t think the writing was strong enough for it to win a prize, but being shortlisted for two major prizes is a great honour.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A thoughtful review, echoing a lot of my feelings about the novel, although as far as I can remember I found the writing (if not the string of events!) a bit less melodramatic that you did. I still think this isn’t ‘medical’ enough for Wellcome, because although it features a number of medical conditions, it isn’t really interested in interrogating them – they function more as plot devices, IIRC. I’ve read two novels recently (James Smythe’s I Still Dream, which is basically To Be A Machine in novel form, and Jessie Greengrass’s Sight) that seem much more like the kind of thing Wellcome should be shortlisting, though I assume both were published too recently to be eligible for this year’s prize.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review, of what sounds like a very interesting novel, Wellcome prize winner or not (and perhaps this isn’t an obvious winner) Novels of other cultures are always fascinating, helping us understand how societies around the world operate.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We’re reading this book for our next Literary Wives novel. I’m really looking forward to it. It sounds like there’s a lot going on, though, so I’m glad I’ll be reading it with a focus in mind!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you! I was on the fence about whether or not to read this and I have decided that I don’t think it’s something I want to read after all! (You know I’m trying to cull my TBR list.) So you’ve done me a great service! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m so intrigued by the fact that the shortlisting pulled you back to this one, urging another try. It’s one that I liked but I didn’t love it as much as some readers seemed to. One aspect that I did really appreciate about it was that she upset my expectations; I was expecting a single “loss” (to be vague and avoid adding any spoilers) and then a preoccupation with the effect on the marital scene (with the rest of the book dealing with that kind of sadness and related fallout). The arc seemed quite predictable to me initially, but, no: and I do love a good upset. (Reading a lot, I guess one can get a little cynical I suppose.) Would you read another of hers?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I would be willing to read something else by her, because undoubtedly she will grow as a novelist. I was reminded of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s stories a bit — I wonder if short stories would almost be a better form for her?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I totally agree about the plot veering into melodrama (and know what you mean about the spoiler!) It’s an interesting book and one I’ve sent to people for its themes and content, but not necessarily for its writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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