Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

‘Have you ever seen God in a labour room giving birth to a child? Tell me, Yejide, have you ever seen God in the labour ward? Women manufacture children and if you can’t? You are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.’

Yejide and Akin have been married for two years when Akin’s mother begins bringing potential second wives to his office every Monday morning. When she threatens to start visiting Yejide with the women each week, Akin agrees to marry Funmi. The deciding factor? That she doesn’t insist on moving in with him. Instead, he installs her in a flat, leaving Yejide blissfully unaware of her existence.

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At the beginning of the novel, and four years into Akin and Yejide’s marriage, Iya Martha, Yejide’s father’s oldest wife, and Baba Lola, Akin’s uncle, present Yejide with Funmi. They’re convinced that when Funmi gets pregnant Yejide will too.

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me-smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles, name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick, and I had them ready.

Yejide is an educated woman with her own hairdressing salon business. She is smart, confident and independent, but the society she lives in isn’t constructed to recognise women as such. The lack of a pregnancy is seen as her shortcoming, and when Yejide calls Akin a bastard, Iya Martha criticises her for not allowing Funmi to stay in their house. She says Yejide should be grateful to her husband, while Yejide points out to the reader that she pays half of the rent.

The novel alternates between Yejide and Akin’s points of view. This structural decision adds depth, allowing Adébáyò to consider the effects of a patriarchal society which values gender constructs, particularly motherhood, from both a female and a male perspective. Adébáyò uses it particularly well for moments of dramatic irony, priming the reader for the point when the other half of the couple will discover a betrayal.

It’s obvious that Akin loves his first wife and not his second, but also that he feels torn between Yejide and his mother, who makes her expectations clear. As Funmi inserts herself further into their lives and Yejide tries everything – doctors, prophets, priests – in order to help her conceive, their marriage begins to feel the strain and both of them make choices that will have devastating consequences.

Stay With Me considers a patriarchal, patrilineal, heterosexual society’s expectations of a married couple. It examines the pressure for couples to produce children; the value that’s placed on the continuation of the bloodline.

Adébáyò incorporates something of the thriller genre with a few unexpected and shocking twists, while writing sentences as beautiful as these:

I did not feel better. I would not feel better for a very long time. Already, I was coming undone, like a hastily tied scarf, coming loose, on the ground before the owner knows it.

But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.

These days I tell myself that is why I stretched to accommodate every new level of indignity, so I could have someone who would look for me if I went missing.

Stay With Me is intelligent, provocative and gripping. Ayòbámi Adébáyò is an exciting new talent.

If you will be in or around London a week today (Tuesday 7th March), I will be chairing a New Nigerian Fiction night at Waterstones, Gower Street featuring Ayòbámi Adébáyò and Chibundo Onuzo, author of The Spider King’s Daughter and Welcome to Lagos. More information and tickets are available here.

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

The Bailey’s Prize – A Guide to the Shortlist

The Bailey’s Prize is announced this week. At this point the only thing that’s certain is the five judges are going to have a tough time choosing a winner; the shortlist is exceptional. Here’s my guide to the six remaining books (if you click on the covers it’ll take you to the full reviews):

 

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze’s enduring love but also a tale of racial inequality and the West’s racial narrative.

Best for: A new perspective and a cracking love story.

Any flaws? I loved it so but I could see why people might find it slightly too long.

 

 

 

Burial Rites is a fictionalised version of the story of Agnus Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

Best for: Incredible descriptions of the Icelandic scenery; giving a voice to a marginalised woman.

Any flaws? The conversations Agnus has with the Reverend Thorvadar become an expositional device towards the end.

 

 

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, and their lives. Initially the action takes place in Calcutta and then moves to America. There is also a third character, a woman, Gauri, who becomes central as the novel progresses.

Best for: Incredible layered prose that builds into something spectacular.

Any flaws? A slow starter.

 

 

The Undertaking tells the story of Peter Faber and Katharina Spinelli’s marriage. It’s 1941 and Peter is a soldier fighting at Stalingrad. Katharina is the daughter of a family of Nazi sympathisers.

Best for: The dialogue is superb; the viewpoint is unflinching and relates without condemning.

Any flaws? It’s grim, oh so very very grim.

 

 

 

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a coming-of-age tale of an unnamed Irish girl who tells her story to her younger brother who is dying from a brain tumour.

Best for: Fragmented prose which builds images in an almost poetic way. It’s like nothing you’ve read before.

Any flaws? It’s grim; the darkest book on the list. It will leave you broken.

 

 

The Goldfinch is Theodore Decker’s story following his mother’s death in a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It follows him through New York, Vegas and Amsterdam along with the painting from which the book takes its name and Theo takes from the museum.

Best for: A cracking good yarn you can immerse yourself in.

Any flaws? The ending’s ludicrous.

 

The Winner? For me, it has to be Americanah; it’s an incredible book – a book that changed my perspective while making me will the lovers on.

However, if I was in the judging room and forced to compromise, The Lowland and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing would be my alternative choices.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

It’s here! The six shortlisted books are:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland

Audrey Magee – The Undertaking

Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

(Click the titles for links to my reviews.)

First thought: Oh my goodness, no The Luminaries followed by yessssssss for Americanah and The Undertaking. Four of my wishlist are on, including the two that for me had to be there. Very much looking forward to the debate over these six for the next few weeks.

Selecting the Shortlist: The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

How excited am I about tonight’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize shortlisting? That’s a rhetorical question, of course.

To whet your appetite for the announcement which will be taking place across social media networks and on Front Row at 7.15pm, here’s the judges discussing how difficult it was to narrow twenty books to six.

 

My Bailey’s Women’s Prize Shortlist

On Monday 7th April, the judges of the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will announce their shortlist. Trying to second guest the books those five women will decide to put through to the second round of the prize is not my aim here – I would no doubt be wrong on several counts. However, having read sixteen of the longlisted books and partially read three (at the time of writing), were I to be one of the judges fighting for the books I love to be included, these are the six I’d be fighting for (click on the covers to read my reviews):

I was stunned to discover that the longlist included two of the best books I’ve ever read. Stunned because the older you become and the more you read, the less often a book is the ‘best’ book you’ve ever read. However, Americanah is an incredible book. It has a fresh, direct tone; its subject matter is intelligent and thoughtful but doesn’t detract from the love story at its core; it’s quite an achievement. The Lowland is a masterpiece. Skilfully written with carefully layered sentences and ideas of loss at its centre, it’s deeply affecting.

The Luminaries makes the list because it combines a cracking detective story with a interesting structure. When I reached the second half of the book, the plot and the decreasing length of the chapters meant I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing is another novel with an interesting structure – the present day story is told forward, while the past is presented to us in reverse. This leaves the reading feeling like a detective looking for the protagonist’s motive and being wrong-footed at several points.

Then I have two debuts: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is an incredible piece of literature. Again, the sentences are layered, although in this case they are staccato and dense – an odd juxtaposition that you have to completely immerse yourself in. This could have been a fairly straight-forward (although very grim) coming-of-age story but the style and structure transcend it. The Undertaking also transcends a genre, in this case, war fiction. Two things make this a good book as opposed to a good debut – the use of dialogue and the point of view. The novel’s mostly dialogue, not an easy thing to write, and it works; it’s snappy and clear, while leaving room for ambiguity of meaning. Point of view wise, this is a story of a family of Nazi sympathisers and a soldier in the battle of Stalingrad. Again, this was a book that felt fresh.

It’s worth pointing out here that of the nineteen longlisted books I’ve read (or partially read at the time of writing) there isn’t a bad one amongst them. I was going to post some ‘near misses’ too but I found myself wanting to post all of them. The full list of my reviews is here (hopefully this will be complete shortly); I’m sure there’s something there you’ll enjoy.

Now for the excitement of waiting for the actual shortlist…

 

(The only book I haven’t read any of is Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam as I want to read the whole trilogy.)