Published in 1958, ‘Things Fall Apart’ was the first African novel to receive global attention and introduced the world to the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Achebe has since been deemed “the father of modern African literature.” His legacy still looms large over African literature published today, and especially on Nigerian literature. Taking its title from William Butler Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’, the novel is set in pre-colonial Igboland and follows how an Igbo village is changed when British Christian missionaries arrive. Six decades later, it has become the archetypal and most widely read work of African literature.
Ayobami Adebayo, an up-and-coming writer, has clearly been influenced by Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her debut novel, ‘Stay With Me’, is fresh, exciting, and challenging. It was shortlisted for the prestigious, Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.Adebayo was inspired to write the book after the deaths of two of her close friends to sickle cell anaemia, and the effect their deaths had on their families. Nigeria has the highest rates of sickle cell anaemia in the world – a quarter of the coutry either carries the trait or has disease. Adebayo, now 30, has the trait herself, and got her BA in English Literature at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, and got an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia.
‘Stay With Me’ follows the marriage of a Yoruba Nigerian couple, which begins to fall apart when they struggle to conceive. The story is told from the perspectives of the husband and wife, Akin and Yejide, and switches back and forth to contrast their perspectives. This technique captures how people can experience the same things and feel completely different about it. However, Adebayo’s characterisation of her protagonists is sympathetic, and the reader is not encouraged to align with a particular character; both are deeply flawed, but they’re just human. The narrative goes back and forth between 2008, the present day, 1985 and onwards and the past. Adebayo subtly brings in the political context of the military coups of the 1980s and 90s before Nigeria established a stable democracy in 1999. The politics never overshadows the love story at its centre.
Although I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and have related to characters in her novels because they were Nigerian, I felt a stronger connection to the characters in ‘Stay With Me’ because they were Yoruba, like myself. And like Adichie, Adebayo uses her native language, Yoruba, in the novel making it all the more powerful. The novel also brings in Yoruba folktales and superstitions, things I had become disconnected to as a diasporic Nigerian. It is full of drama and tension; at times absolutely heart-wrenching, and other times hilariously melodramatic like a Nollywood film. Adebayo’s use of language is evocative, and I found myself often shocked and emotional. Tears are to be expected. ‘Stay With Me’ is an impressive, tenderly written, debut novel. It explores complex and difficult themes, whilst capturing one of Nigeria’s diverse unique cultures.