Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A painful love story playing out against the turmoil of late 20th century Nigerian politics – but impacted more by centuries of tradition than by the sometimes violent events of the times. Tightly written with strong characters, but firmly plot-driven. The present/flash-back device works reasonably well, but it's the shifting viewpoints that build the empathy that makes the final unravelling so emotional. A phenomenal debut from this young writer.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: March 2017
Publisher: Canongate Books
ISBN: 978-1782119463

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Shortlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2017

Readers of my reviews know that I have a thing about the blurb…a continual whinge that publishers give away far too much of the stories in the words they insist on putting on the back of the book. Not this time. This time, if what's on the proof copy is what goes on the final edition, it is perfect.

It reads There are things even love can't do…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… That is the most heart-breakingly beautiful truth I've read in a long time – and it sums up this story. This is a story about love not being enough…but still being love. I hope this becomes a classic, not just in its native Nigeria but around the world.

Nigeria. That's the context. The story starts in the political turbulence of Nigeria in the 1980s and weaves its way from there to a funeral in 2008. The Nigerian author was born in 1988, so by the end of her debut novel's timeline she'd have been 20. The times she speaks of are the times she grew up in. She has had less than a decade's distance from that timeline and yet the story she tells belies her youth – not just in her understanding of the politics of her country, but in her re-interpretation of its myths and customs, and in her understanding of what it means to be a woman in any context, let alone that one.

That she manages a strong empathy of what, also, it might mean to be a man in that context is what shifts this love story to the next level.

It is, in simple terms, a love story, a life story. Yejide and Akin meet at University – and if you believe in love at first sight, that is what occurs. But love, as the blurb says, is not enough to conquer all. The burden it alludes to is the lack of a child…not just the lack of a child (hard enough to bear for many people) but that lack in a culture where it is a thing to be shamed for, where solutions might be sought that don't take into account human feelings, human failings, a culture where Shame has to have a capital letter.

From a western reader's perspective it is an intriguing insight into a culture that most of us know nothing about. From this reader's perspective, I loved the interweaving of the folk-lore and particularly the childhood tales. We should not, however, get too hung up on the cultural specifics – much of what plays out could play out in many families here too. Less obviously perhaps, but just as painfully.

I want to spin out more words urging you to read this book…I want to tell you about atmosphere and character and sense of place. I want to tell you about modern science and ancient tradition, of healers and faith and faith healers and the lack of healing. I can't.

I cannot do any of that, because all of it is so unbelievably tightly bound up in the plot – and to give even a hint of that is to take away from the reading of it. All I can tell you is that it's a story of strong characters, a story of young people trying to make their own life at the boundary of a society moving from one concept of itself to another. The political events are merely a back-drop, mostly. In a couple of key places, the plot would not hold but for the reality of events, but mainly what drives the story is people being the people they have been brought up to be – up to the point at which they become the people they choose to be. It is about that choice: the choices we make, and why we make them, and how often we choose not to be honest, even with ourselves about those choices, and just how much we come to regret them. Jealousy, betrayal, despair…but ultimately also, hope, and maybe, however shattered, perhaps, love.

It is a stunning debut from one so young – look out for the author's name on the awards listings in the years to come.

Lots of the literary work on Nigeria is set in the days of the post-colonial wars Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and its ilk are still worth reading – but I'd also urge folk to check out the new voices that are telling the modern tales of life in this part of the world On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe and 419 by Will Ferguson to name just two.

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