Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 6: Adébáyò

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

Stay With Me, by Ayòbámi Adébáyò

31349579(Quick note: I tried to put the proper accent marks in Adébáyò’s name, but some of the vowels have marks both above and below the letters, and WordPress’s symbols dictionary isn’t advanced enough to handle that, apparently. I’ve done my best. Of interest to some readers may be that the US jacket for Stay With Me makes no effort at all to reproduce the accent marks, while the UK jacket has all of them.)

Stay With Me is, in its most elevator-pitch description, about infertility. (It actually isn’t, quite, but we’ll talk about that later.) Yejide and Akin Ajayi have been married for several years. It is the early 1990s and both are degree-holding Nigerians living in Ilesa; Yejide owns her own business, a hair salon, and Akin is a banker. Yet they remain childless. Akin’s family is growing restless. As the book opens, Yejide is presented by her in-laws and husband with a fait accompli: Akin has taken a second wife, the much younger Funmi. Though she will be technically of lower rank than Yejide, the hope is that she will be able to bear a son—ideally many—to carry on the family’s name. We also learn, through a flash forward to 2013, that Akin and Yejide somehow become estranged, and remain so for decades. Adébáyò spends the rest of the novel flipping us back and forth between the events of the early ’90s that destroyed the Ajayis’ marriage, and the opportunity for reconciliation that arises in the chapters set in 2013.

The first half of the novel is the strongest, although it is treading on familiar ground. It does not, of course, occur to anyone that the problem might not be with Yejide’s womb but with Akin, and her family and in-laws’ patronising, dismissive, often downright cruel attitudes towards her are painted vividly. Yejide herself is a force of nature: infuriated with everyone who has sanctioned the match between Akin and Funmi, she prepares a meal for the matchmakers and the new bride that is significantly less glorious than protocol demands—which also happens to bring them all down with explosive diarrhoea. Her rage has deep roots: her mother was a nomad whom her father never married and who died in childbirth, and she was raised by stepmothers who considered her the child of a whore. This is rarely played for sentiment or even dwelt upon very heavily, but it explains everything about Yejide that might otherwise seem excessive: her passionate attachment to the ideal of a family, her refusal at one point to accept that she is having a phantom pregnancy, her explosive temper, and her strength of will. Where Akin is mostly passive and rational, often asking her to calm down, she is presented as an active, aggressive, emotional dynamo.

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – It is because of this that the book’s twist and development works as well as it does (and whether it works particularly well is another question, but this is why it works at all.) We learn partway through the novel that not only has Yejide’s affair with her brother-in-law Dotun been fully engineered, without her knowledge, between Dotun and Akin—so that she can get pregnant—but that the reason it is necessary is because Akin is impotent. He has known this for decades, but has lied to Yejide (a virgin before their marriage) about what constitutes “normal” sex, and so she has spent their entire relationship believing that Akin’s inability to achieve an erection has nothing to do with her failure to conceive. Whether it’s at all plausible that a woman pursuing a degree in Nigeria in 1985 would be so painfully ignorant about the logistics of sex—and I’m perfectly willing to accept that it is plausible; I simply don’t know—is a potential problem, but the thematic perfection of this twist is in its reversal of that earlier established dynamic between Yejide and Akin. We’ve thought, all this time, that she’s the one making choices (albeit desperate ones, like paying a faith healer and lugging a goat up a mountainside for a fraudulent fertility ceremony). Instead, she has been acted upon, without her knowledge or consent, all this time: not just for the duration of their marriage, but for as long as they have known each other. And by extension, so have we.

After this revelation, which is pretty melodramatic in itself, things get more melodramatic. (Oh, there’s also a sort-of-murder—if I were a prosecuting lawyer I’d call it something like second-degree manslaughter.) When Yejide conceives, the first baby dies, apparently a random victim of SIDS. Her second and third children are both born with sickle-cell disease. There is more death. There is a military coup. There is another coup.

This is the source of my other problem with the book, which is the war. I appreciate that if your novel is set in Nigeria in the early ’90s, you’re going to have to handle civil war; the problem is that reading protocols (at least for literary fiction) prime us to think of civil war as a Big Deal, a Major Theme. We expect civil war either to be the whole point of a book (for which, see Half of a Yellow Sun) or we expect its relatively small impact to be part of a more satirical or nihilistic general flavour (as in Beauty Is A Wound, where atrocity’s commonplaceness dulls individual horrors, and where that’s exactly the point.) Instead, in Stay With Me, we get the coups and the war as a kind of wallpaper; fighting is what prevents Yejide from reaching Akin and her third baby at a crucial point in the plot, but there’s no sense that the conflict is thematically important. In a way this is in the novel’s favour—Adébáyò isn’t writing a political novel, but a domestic one—but under other circumstances, I would have suggested that, if your novel isn’t political, it’s possibly not necessary to introduce a civil war. Adébáyò, however, is trapped by history. You can’t write a novel set in this time and place and pretend nothing happened, but then you have to make the conflict seem relevant to the story you’re trying to tell, and it just isn’t here.

All of this makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book very much, which isn’t the case. It’s a very affecting page-turner about the way that men and women relate to one another, especially in situations where their capabilities are equal but the expectations surrounding them are wildly different. Yejide and Akin struggle to balance tradition and the demands of their relatives and heritage with their own awareness of modernity, in terms both of medical science and of relationships. Their struggle is sympathetic and engaging, and the book’s ending—though a little unbelievably sunny—satisfied. I can’t help thinking, though, that I’ll have forgotten about it in a few months’ time; it will have blurred together with other depictions of domestic turmoil and gendered hypocrisy. That doesn’t make it a bad book; it’s just not enough to shortlist it.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Stay With Me is published by Canongate and is available in hardback.

Darling Days, by iO Tillett Wright

What I’m about to do is the worst and best move I will ever make.

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The book-comparison game is a dangerous one, but it is one that people who sell and promote books have to play on a regular basis. Sometimes this results in weird and vaguely desperate combinations (hands up if you’ve ever seen a book whose jacket says something like “for fans of Stephen King and Sex and the City” and wondered what the hell kind of target demographic that is); sometimes it results in regrettable over-selling (see my review of Diary of an Oxygen Thief, which wasn’t well served by being compared to The Catcher in the Rye). Sometimes—just sometimes—it’s spot on. And so it is with Darling Days, a memoir by iO Tillett Wright (yes, iO, spelled like that) that comes garlanded with comparisons to Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. Incredibly, almost improbably, the comparisons are apt. It’s a great book.

Actually, for my money, Wright is better at prose than Patti Smith is by a considerable margin. I enjoyed Just Kids for its general atmosphere of romantic bohemianism, but much of the writing on a sentence-by-sentence basis felt overwrought, emotional, and repetitive. Wright, by contrast, produces electrifying, evocative descriptions of the Lower East Side in the 1980s, a world that gentrification destroyed so quickly that it is almost as though these places never existed. Take this:

The Bowery Hotel, now a glamorous weekend landing pad for movie starlets, used to be a twenty-four-hour gas station that served radioactive vindaloo on Styrofoam plates to my mother in the middle of the night. Two mangy dogs roamed between the pumps, so dirty and caked with exhaust grease that one’s fur had turned green, the other one’s blue.

Wright’s mother’s husband, Billy, the great love of her life, was shot in his sleep by police. She was never married to Wright’s father, Seth Tillett, with whom she had a relationship after Billy’s death. Wright is entirely open about her parents’ intentions, or lack thereof (“they never had the intention of being a couple or building any kind of domestic life together”), but she’s equally clear about their love for their daughter. They promise each other that they will put her first; they will care for her; they will never put her through foster care or the courts system. Their official relationship might be only temporary, but both pledge responsibility for the baby.

For the first few years of Wright’s life, she lives with her mother. Apart from the abject poverty, the fact that they live up the block from a shelter full of homeless, occasionally violent junkies, and Wright’s desire to dress, act, and be treated as a boy, everything is pretty normal. In 1991, though, things start to change: the management of their apartment building, mindful of new city regulations, announces that the place will be gutted, and everyone will need to move:

The way Ma describes it, it’s like they rode in from Fourth Street on horseback. One day we are minding our own business in the asshole of the universe, and the next day these squares are galloping in, handing out bribes or slaughter as they go.

…’Unfortunately for all of us, either way the city is stepping in and putting its foot down. All the tenants will be temporarily relocated during the renovations to equally comfortable apartments until you can be moved back into your new houses.’

He tries to word this carefully, but when he says “comfortable”, half a dozen people snort and snicker. I’m thinking of the red-haired, pothead leprechaun with six pianos downstairs, and what comfort might mean to him, a kind of joy inconceivable to the man now speaking in American Dream bullshit platitudes. Or what it means to my mom, for whom comfort itself is a dirty word.

This is really the beginning of the end for the people who live in this building, and it seems to be the beginning of the end for Rhonna Wright, too. From this point onwards, she becomes increasingly angry, violent, even psychotic. Little iO has always known that her mom drinks a lot, but this is different, a darkness behind her eyes that frightens. She writes just enough scenes describing fights between her and her mother for us to get the idea: they are both incredibly strong-willed. Rhonna has always been her protector, but things are getting untenable. There’s never food. Rhonna starts cooking things and forgets about them. She hoards trash, newspapers, cardboard. The apartment is dark and difficult to navigate. iO sleeps on an army cot and is woken repeatedly, almost nightly, by her mother raging through the darkness, swearing, screaming.

The “best and worst move she will ever make” is the reporting of her mother’s condition to her school guidance counselor. Wright knows this will catapult her into the care of the city and the courts system, a bureaucracy against which her mother has fought all her life. She knows it will be seen as a betrayal, but she does not have a choice. Eventually, a court grants custody to her father, and she moves to Germany to live with him.

It’s a brief happiness: her father, too, has substance addiction problems, and her father’s girlfriend Julia eventually finds the whole situation too difficult to handle. When Julia finally snaps, pinning Wright to a car bonnet and screaming into her face on a freezing Christmas Eve, it’s a horrible scene, and if Wright’s terrible vulnerability wasn’t already clear to the reader, this part makes it so. She’s a tenacious, hot-tempered teenager, and she can’t have been easy to care for, but her life so far has lacked such a basic level of stability. Her father sends her to a progressive boarding school in England, where she finds the heady joys of first love with a German student called Nikita, but every summer, it’s a toss-up as to where Wright will end up, which country she’ll call home this year.

Clearly enough, what keeps her grounded (and, sometimes, alive) is her circle of friends. There’s Johnny, her Puerto Rican “brother” who leaves his leftovers on the table for her as a kid. There’s the girl she calls KGB, a beautiful Russian; there’s Nan, her larger-than-life godmother; there’s Frankie, a pot-smoking bohemian musician who moves into the flat Wright and Rhonna share in New York, and who can care for Rhonna with the objectivity that Wright cannot summon. There’s also Edie Tillett, Wright’s paternal grandmother, providing unconditional love and a bolthole over the years: her death, near the end of the book, is wrenching.

 Wright ends her memoir as she moves out of her mother’s apartment, aged twenty-two, looking for a new start and entering a new relationship. The copy I read was an unfinished proof; I hope that in the final book, perhaps in the Acknowledgments, there’s a sense of how Wright’s relationship with her mother currently stands. It’s clearly the strongest, most significant bond of her life, at least thus far; she never villainizes Rhonna, only tries to understand. (Her mother’s late-revealed dependence on Desoxyn explains a lot: combined with alcohol, it produces psychosis.) All the other people that love and support Wright, too, populate the background of this book, quiet but nevertheless present. That old saying is true, after all: friends are a family you choose.

Thanks very much to Grace Vincent at Virago for the review copy. Darling Days will be published in the UK on 27 September.

The Tidal Zone, by Sarah Moss

It is not all right, but there is beauty.

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Sarah Moss’s new novel begins with a fifteen-year-old girl who, one day, for reasons no doctor can quite discern, collapses on the field at school and stops breathing. Her name is Miriam Goldschmidt, known to her family as Mimi or Mim, and although the novel starts with her “incident”, as others call it, what it’s actually about is Mimi’s father Adam and the way he responds to this inexplicable medical hazard that now hangs over his daughter. Adam is a stay-at-home father, and I think it highly telling that, although there are plenty of stay-at-home fathers in the world, and although I read at least a hundred books a year, I cannot think of a single book I’ve read that adopts the point of view of such a man. Moss uses Adam’s maleness as a way of turning on their heads all of the stereotypes about women who have children; it achieves the effect that one of Helen Simpson’s short stories in Cockfosters, “Erewhon”, is going for, when it gives to a late-middle-aged man an internal monologue of fears and worries about undesirability and how to have an equitable marriage when you’re not the breadwinner. The Tidal Zone works where “Erewhon” doesn’t quite, because it’s very firmly grounded in reality: Adam and his wife Emma exist in our world, where their division of household labour is viewed as progressive and vaguely alien, whereas “Erewhon” is essentially a social fantasy.

This is the first novel by Sarah Moss that I’ve read, but you can tell, from reading it, what her strengths as a novelist must be in her other books too: voice, character, and weaving poetic interstices among the episodes of action that draw them all together, give the reader a chance to breathe. The Tidal Zone is full of social commentary that passes off so casually, usually in dialogue and quite often in sarcasm, that you don’t see it until it’s already happened. Miriam, for instance, is a very clever and very infuriating fifteen-year-old with all of a fifteen-year-old’s rage and idealism: she’s awake to feminism, to the iniquities of global capitalism, to the way that the older generation seems to have so comprehensively fucked over today’s adolescents and young adults. She’s annoying about it, because she is persistently cynical and refuses to admit any comforting pabulum in any form (she mocks her father for suggesting, after her cardiac arrest, that they move to the country; she knows the narrative he’s trying to follow, and she knows that it’s “all fantasy and self-congratulation”, as she puts it). But she’s also bang on the money most of the time, and sharply funny with it. When a family friend sends her a copy of his latest book to read while she’s in hospital, she is disgusted:

“No, Dad, that’s monstrously egotistical. Oh, sorry you nearly died, you’d better read my book. My monstrously egotistical book about how when I go for a walk it’s a profound moral and spiritual experience that makes me a better person than you, but when you go to the same place you’re just a tourist messing things up… It’s a pile of bullshit about how he’s weighed down by sorrow for my generation, only not like normal adults are because we’re being badly educated for jobs that don’t exist in an economy that condemns us to poverty and homelessness, but because we can’t tell the difference between the lesser marshwort and the – the flowering marsh grass, which all goes to show that we’re losing our vital and precious sense of being at one with the natural world, rather than for example showing that the world’s moved on and by the time we’re grown up two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities and not actually giving a fuck about the lesser marshwort, and it doesn’t seem to have crossed his sorrowful little mind that if we all went and joined him communing with the fauna of furthest outer Scotland it would in fact be full of people and he’d have to find somewhere else to be superior—”

Which actually made me grin with black-hearted glee, because Miriam pinpoints so unmercifully, of course, a particular kind of bullshit nostalgia evident in contemporary nature writing (I’ll name no names), and links it so acutely to a need for superiority. It’s incisive and wonderful, and it’s also expressed in a manner entirely in keeping with a fifteen-year-old: she doesn’t sound implausibly adult, here, but like a smart, articulate, really pissed off teenager, which is exactly what she is throughout the course of the book.

Likewise, Adam’s existence as a very part-time academic (he’s working on a book about the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral) and full-time dad is laid bare for us in a conversation that he has with the father of one of Miriam’s friends:

He came to lean on the kitchen counter, watched me run a spatula round the springform cake tin… “Looks as if you really know what you’re doing. I don’t get much beyond a ready meal myself. Well, apart from the barbecue in the summer.”…He shifted his feet, as if his balls were too big for him to stand straight. I never know what I’m supposed to say to remarks like his.

…”They’re not keeping you too busy up at the University then?”

“Oh, I’m very part-time there. Just teaching once a week.” Just to get me out of the house, I didn’t say, to make a change from Pilates and getting my hair done; look, mate, it’s a job, the making of cakes and the washing of sheets, the coordination of laundry with PE lessons, the handling of the Christmas shopping and the girls’ dental appointments, and the fact that your wife does it on top of her paid work without you noticing does not make you clever.

To which, obviously, one says, Amen.

Not that Adam is a model of meek domesticity—he and Emma have marital problems aplenty, one of which is that they don’t communicate with one another very well and another of which is that they seem not to have had sex for an unbelievably long time. Both of these have to do with the fact that Emma is a GP working twelve-hour days, and although Adam knows well enough that Emma’s paycheck is what enables them to live as comfortably as they do, there is still a level of resentment there. It’s a low-level toxicity, the kind that results in a slow accretion of petty frustrations. You’re never really sure, reading The Tidal Zone, what the stress of Miriam’s “incident” and subsequent diagnosis (such as it is) is going to do to Adam and Emma’s marriage. At several points in the novel, I was almost positive it was going to end in divorce.

Moss is too canny to let us feel as though it’s all definitely going to be okay at the end—it would be nonsensical for us to feel that way given that the entire preceding novel has been precisely about the impossibility of knowing that it’s all definitely going to be okay. Her prose is fluid and sensual and gorgeous, and it is particularly well suited, I think, to describing the emotional phenomena that surround medicine and un-wellness. Adam is so badly affected by the suddenness of Miriam’s collapse, by its inexplicability, that he wanders the house unable to do anything after she returns to school. Every siren could be going to her, or going to Rose, their younger daughter. He monitors their sleep. He reminds Miriam with a zealousness bordering on mania to take her epipen with her at all times. He is afraid that the anaphylaxis will be triggered by cold, or hunger, or by running too fast. He reminded me, more painfully than I had expected, of my mother, who must have gone through precisely the same agonies when I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of three; who spent most of my childhood making sure that there was a juicebox and some peanut butter crackers in my emergency bag; who made me run up and down the stairs when it rained, to get enough exercise. Terror; love; the same thing.

The Coventry Cathedral project that Adam is working on forms a secondary strand to The Tidal Zone (the story of Adam’s parents—his father, born the child of Jewish refugees in Brooklyn, now in Cornwall; his mother, who drowned in a freak accident when Adam was a boy—is the third and final subplot.) His monograph (or, rather, his “geolocative media app”, since that is the sort of academic project that gets funded now, he tells us) is about the reconstruction of the cathedral after it was bombed to bits in the Second World War. The story of Coventry Cathedral is a story not just of recovery after great trauma, but of how that great trauma forges great beauty. The deaths of Coventry’s citizens, and the murder of the Jews in the Holocaust, are everywhere reflected in the new cathedral’s design: in the tapestry, Christ In Glory, that rises the height of the building; in the saints and angels of the West Screen, “angular, emaciated… in the image of those liberated from Nazi concentration camps.” In the roofless ruins that are left as they stand. That’s how you transform an experience that could destroy you: you make it beautiful. You tell a story.

Moss integrates her themes so well that, as I thought about the book after reading it, I kept pulling out new strands and thinking, “Ah, yes! Oh, that makes sense too, in conjunction with this, and with that bit…” If I’m honest, I’m still not entirely sure how she does it—maintains that limpid, vivid prose while being so elegant with the big ideas underpinning it all. It’s an extraordinary book, an unforgettable one, and one I’d urge on anyone, really. Perhaps by reading her other books, I’ll work out how it’s done.

Many thanks to Lamorna Elmer at Granta Books for the review copy. The Tidal Zone was published in the UK on 7 July.