As many bloggers, reviewers and readers have already commented, 2017 is an exceptionally strong year for the Baileys Prize. Having read five out of six of the shortlisted books (Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle is waiting for me at the library), I can honestly say that I would consider any of them to be a worthy winner. (Indeed, given the quality of the shortlist, I’m tempted to do something I rarely do, and go back to the longlist: I’ve already read Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, but I’m tempted by Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, and (obviously) Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians.) However, there were certainly entries that I thought stronger than others; conversely, nothing has so utterly blown me away that I’m certain it’s my winner. Having already reviewed Naomi Alderman’s The Power, in this series of round-up posts I’m going to say what I thought about the other shortlisted novels, and then give my final ranking.
Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me is a tremendously moving account of the life of a single Nigerian woman, Yejide, spanning almost thirty years from the military coups of the 1980s to the relatively more peaceful territory of 2008. Her story starts and ends in Ilesa in south-west Nigeria, where, as a young university student, she meets and falls in love with Akin. The blurb for Stay With Me gives us a neat elevator pitch: when Yejide fails to get pregnant, Akin’s family, especially his mother, to whom Yejide is especially close, decide that he must take another wife who can give him children. When the new wife, Funmi, appears on the scene, Yejide’s relationship with Akin is threatened. All of this accurately represents the opening chapters of Stay With Me, but it really isn’t a good indication of where the book is going to go – or even what it is about. Similarly, I felt a little misled by the rather platitudinous cherry-picked quotes that seem to turn up in a lot of the marketing for this book. For example: ‘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.’ This does not showcase the best of Adébáyò’s writing, which is witty, concise, and much more moving when it is rooted in characterisation. For example [mild spoilers: highlight to read], when Yejide has her first child, she recalls how Akin ‘spent his evenings singing made-up songs to Olamide and reading newspaper articles aloud to her… It was the most beautiful thing, watching my husband tell my daughter things she could not understand.’[end spoilers]
All this is to say that I thought I wouldn’t like Stay With Me, and I did, enormously. Like Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees, the novel draws from Nigerian folktale both explicitly and implicitly, interweaving traditional stories into the narrative but also drawing its emotional strength from the underlying simplicity of its structure. When Yeijde climbs The Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles to seek miraculous help to get pregnant, we know that this decision is going to haunt her. And it does – but not in the way that we think. Three tragedies come to befall Yejide, each devastating, each blindsiding the reader as much as the characters. I think it should be acknowledged how difficult it is to make a reader feel a character’s pain in this way. I’ve read so many books where I feel I can intellectually acknowledge the awfulness of the events, but I’m struggling to truly connect. This goes double, for me, for novels that deal with relatively familiar fictional themes surrounding marriage and motherhood. But Stay With Me is heartbreaking. When we realise why the book is called what it is, it’s a moment of both beauty and pain.
I think the only other thing I can say without giving away more significant spoilers is that this isn’t a novel about fertility or marriage, not really, or about the everyday infringements of political instability which Adébáyò weaves expertly into the novel (while of course there’s a place for big sweeping political novels about civil war, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun, which deals with the earlier Nigeria-Biafra civil war in the late 1960s, I really appreciated the way Adébáyò documented the little ways conflict touched the characters’ lives); it’s about motherhood and daughterhood. The ending is absolutely earnt, and Yejide and her story will indeed stay with me.
In contrast, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing impressed me with its historical and political scope, but left me emotionally cold. I tried so hard with this book – it’s been received so well that I feel embarrassed for not getting it. And unlike Stay With Me, I was sure I would love it – but I just didn’t. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the blurb tells us, starts with ten-year-old Marie and her mother, who come from China but who are now living in Canada. In 1991, they welcome Ai-Ming, who is fleeing the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming is the daughter of a friend of Marie’s father – who has recently committed suicide – and it soon becomes clear that Marie’s family history, and especially her father’s story, is much more complicated than she suspected. As with Stay With Me, this elevator pitch for Do Not Say We Have Nothing is pretty misleading. Marie barely appears in the novel, acting as the linking thread in the present-day for the interlinked histories of Ai-Ming’s and Marie’s families. These stories start in the 1940s with Ai-Ming’s great-aunt and grandmother, Swirl and Big Mother, and move forward through later generations of the family into Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the horrors it unleashes.
Thien is clearly a fine and intelligent writer. There are a number of memorable political set-pieces in the novel. Her descriptions of the Tiananmen Square protests themselves are incredibly well done, as are the earlier scenes of public denunciations of renowned figures such as the composer He Luting. The questions the characters grapple with about what to believe or trust in such a climate, and what this does to their ability to think, are intellectually very interesting. But I didn’t engage with any of the cast. I found the shifting time-frames incredibly difficult to follow, and would have appreciated a family tree – although I recognise this would have spoilt some later twists. The patchwork nature of the novel makes thematic sense, reflecting the co-authorship, copying and reinvention of a manuscript that is passed around throughout the story, first emerging within the courtship of ‘Wen the Dreamer’ and Swirl. However, I felt like I was spending so much time trying to catch up with what was going on that I was never fully able to root my sympathies for any character in particular, despite the sufferings of the cast as a whole. (The ‘lyrical, nostalgic fog’ of prose that this review discusses expresses my feelings about the style of the novel much more eloquently!)
In this context, I want to talk about some of the trivial and circumstantial reasons we turn against certain novels, some of which originate from within the novel itself and some of which don’t. In the case of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the first is simple: I thought the novel was going to be about Marie and Ai-Ming. These two characters open the novel, lead the blurb, and are instantly intriguing. But they don’t appear on most of its pages. When the novel first flashed back to the early days of the Cultural Revolution, I assumed this would be a brief flashback positioned as part of Marie and Ai-Ming’s conversations. For this reason, I read it at a distance; it felt different to me than the early chapters from Marie’s first-person point of view. By the time I realised the novel’s structure was quite different, it felt too late to ‘catch up’ with the heart I should have put into those early sections. Secondly, music is central to the novel’s narrative, and I am not a musical person. Other equally good novels have not fared well with me for this reason (see: Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music.) Finally, and silliest: I read this book alongside CE Morgan’s wonderful The Sport of Kings. The Sport of Kings I read was a giant hardback, whereas my copy of Do Not Say We Have Nothing was a relatively compact paperback. So every day, I headed out to work, dying to read more of The Sport of Kings, but because I could only cram Do Not Say We Have Nothing into my backpack, I dutifully read through it over multiple bus journeys, never reading more than a bit at a time (unlike The Sport of Kings, which I ended up reading in huge gulps). This alone might explain my disconnection from the text. These things give me pause for thought about how subjective reviewing is – although I think there is something useful to be said about getting the readers’ sympathies in the right place from the outset, which for me, Do Not Say We Have Nothing didn’t manage.
Next up: The Sport of Kings and First Love.