So as I was saying, me and fiction prize-list reading weren't getting on, we seemed to be done with each other in fact, finished, history...the whole kit-and-caboodle was over. Too many lists that had led my reading astray, books that I felt I should enjoy because a group of judges had, and then being disappointed. And in any case I've been so deeply entrenched in reading fiction from the past for the last few months that I really hadn't had my eye on what is out there. I am still sent books (thank you to those who send) and do get invited to plenty of publishing events in London (thank you to those who invite) which would doubtless keep me up to date, but I eschewed the bright lights a while back, and I was dragging my heels over the contemporary scene until I happened to hear the short list announcement for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction on the radio. So interested was I that I hadn't paid much attention to the long list either, but this list of books piqued my attention, I scribbled the titles down.
I had already read, enjoyed and written about The Dark Circle by Linda Grant here and had copies of three others sitting in the pile of The Great Unread; Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò (Canongate), First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta) and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Granta again), so I fished them out and suddenly got that old frisson of reading excitement back, felt inspired to make a start and am giving what I have of this year's short list a go.
So as you can see I was fibbing when I said I was done with fiction prize lists....sorry.
In the way that these things happen (and it's what I love about my reading life) if I hadn't planned to read prize lists then I certainly hadn't planned a trip to Africa from my armchair until the Kayaker (son of us) announced that he was heading back to Uganda for a month to do something a bit different for the final major project of his BA (Hons) in Commercial Photography. Africa is a country he loves and knows well having led white water kayaking trips along the Zambezi and the White Nile in a former life, so he would be going back to friends and familiar places, but this time self-funding a trip to work with an NGO to provide photographs and video footage for their website....as well as some river trips of course (the kayak travelled too...don't ask me how). So for the last few months it's been all about Africa here, and very exciting it has been too, and now he's there its even more exciting watching pictures come through on Instagram.
Set in Nigeria in 1985 alternating with 2008, Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò tells the story of hairdresser Yejida and her bank manager husband Akin. There are rules and expectations among the wider family, and when, after four years, the marriage has produced no children Yejida is blamed and a second wife is introduced. Set against the backdrop of unrest, military coups and falling governments Ayòbámi Adébáyò gives the narrative to both Yejida and Akin offering two sides to the story that will unfold over more than twenty years as well as delving back into the distant past
Some 'review' this is, because I don't want to say much more as to do so would be to give away so many plot surprises that the book will be ruined, and guided by the end paper precis from publisher Canongate I see that they have been extremely circumspect too. I'm glad not to have read any reviews of Stay With Me either because one disclosure, of the many available, would have detracted from the ongoing and very compelling narrative and then the final impact, which saw me put the book down and go for a sundown walk.
Clever writing and superb plotting make it nigh on impossible to take sides in the trials and tribulations of Yejida and Akin, this book is like a reading see-saw...one minute I'm in the Yejida camp along the lines of 'how very dare they', the next I am feeling desperately sorry for Akin. My sympathies were torn through the moments of differing but utterly human (and deeply credible) reactions to the loss and pain, the tragedies, the deceits, the lies and the secrets that mire the couple's life, and as for the ending, well no I couldn't possibly breath a word beyond don't fear it, and you too may be choking back the tears and have to go for a walk.
All I can say is that this is an impressive debut novel, a unique voice and I look forward to more. I don't want to compare but if you enjoy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie then you may like Stay With Me, which fully earns its place on my Top Shelf of Top Reads alongside her. It's a book I can't fault in any way and very deserving of its place on the Baileys Prize short list too. Hie thee to library reservations and get your name down for this one, a quick check and I am pleased to see that at least Devon have three copies and nine reservations.
Next up First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Devon Libraries one copy, five reservations)