Stay with Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
Adébáyọ̀’s novel is the one fiction selection on this year’s Wellcome Prize shortlist. Although it has much to say about the patriarchal society of Nigeria in the 1980s, it surprised me with how much it does meet the prize criteria of a book that celebrates, ” the many ways in which literature can illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness.” I had thought this was just a book about motherhood, but it turned out to go far deeper than just that covering many different medical aspects: fertility, false pregnancy, mental health, pregancy itself, sickle cell, cot death, and importantly, impotence too.
1980s Nigeria is a patriarchal society, and Yejide’s main role is to be a mother, to provide children to carry on the family line. When she and Akin fail to have a baby in the first years of their marriage, Akin’s family push him into taking a second wife, Funmi. Yejide is devastated, and she develops a false pregnancy, she can’t believe the doctors who tell her there is no baby there, Her reputation for barreness is saved by the arrival of Akin’s brother Dotun, who is jobless and estranged from his own wife and children. Yejide’s pregnancy via Dotun is a cause for celebration, but little does she know about the genetic burden they bear and the effect this will ultimately have on her marriage.
Aside from all the medical aspects of Yejide’s motherhood, Adébáyọ̀ captures the life of this aspirant Nigerian family well, and Yejide’s job as a hairdresser and the sisterly chatter between her and her clients and neighbour at her salon give us some light relief from the heavy drama at home and the secrets that Akin hides.
Adébáyọ̀ tells most of the story in flashback, yet it begins in 2008 with Yejide returning to attend Akin’s father’s funeral. We don’t know why she went away until very much later. The majority of the text is set over twenty years earlier in 1985, and most of it is told from Yejide’s point of view. Just a few sections come from Akin whom I felt Adébáyọ̀ lets off quite lightly.
This book will be an unlikely winner of the prize, but for a debut, this novel makes Adébáyọ̀ one to watch. Stay With Me was very much a page-turner for me. It is colourful and full of character, if a little prone to melodrama at times, but gave some real insights into Nigerian family life during this period. (8/10)
Source: Own copy. Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, Stay With Me (Canongate, 2017), paperback, 304 pages. BUY from AMAZON UK (affiliate link)
With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix
Mannix is a pioneering doctor, a consultant in the field of palliative care, taking care of people who are dying. Making patients comfortable, easing their pain and nausea are just some of the physical ways in which their suffering can be helped. There are countless new developments in medicine to allow doctors to finesse end of life treatment to permit patients live without pain and to die with dignity. But it is helping patients, and their families and loved ones, to understand the process of dying, and dispelling the taboos around it that make this book such a valuable and compelling read.
I wish I’d read something like this book before my mum died of secondary breast cancer. I’d have understood better why she couldn’t eat or do anything at all really in the later stages, how she clung on bravely staying conscious until my brother arrived back from abroad, and then she slipped off quietly in the night. Having been at the hospital for a couple of days, I’d left to see my daughter and get a few hours of proper sleep. Her partner was still with her, but I’ve felt guilty ever since at not being there. Mannix explains how even an unconscious patient may wait until the hubbub of being surrounded by loved ones has gone away to die. I feel let off the hook, and tears flowed freely at times as I read this book.
Mannix describes around thirty cases over the forty year course of her career, splitting them into six thematic sections. From the earliest days of her career when she was learning from others about cancer care, through deciding to specialise in palliative care, these pages are full of wonderful caring doctors, nurses and carers, whether in hospital ward, hospice or at home. Many of the cases included do involve cancer, and often secondaries, but each patient’s experience and situation is different and you can’t help but feel for all of them – and their families. Young Billy arrives at his mother’s deathbed shackled between two prison warders and proceeds to upset everyone. It’s only when the brave doctor persuades the warders to undo the handcuffs and wait outside that Billy can jettison his bravado, hug his mum and say his goodbyes. There’s the teenager with leukaemia who needs help sewing a memory cushion to leave behind on the family rocking chair,and the headmaster with motor neurone disease that worries about getting things done. Most touching of all perhaps are Nelly and Joe, each believing the other doesn’t know about the cancer that’s killing Nelly, and needing permission to talk to each about it.
It is interesting that Mannix has added a CBT qualification to her CV, and uses CBT in palliative care to help patients stay active, combat depression, recognise and deal with panic attacks and so on. It obviously worked well for those described in this book. However, at the end of each of the thematic sections is another short chapter entitled ‘Pause for thought’ which asks us to evaluate our own experiences of dying in others and think ahead towards our own death, and challenge some of our own preconceptions. I have no personal experience of CBT, but felt these few pages placed at the end of sections rather disrupted the main flow of the case studies. The questions within seem rather blunt on the page, but if put in a self-help section at the end wouldn’t necessarily have the same impact.
I will finish with a favourite quotation.
‘I love our job,’ I remark as we stand in the hospital lift with a newborn baby in a cot, proud parents and a midwife escort.
‘What do you do?’ asks the midwife, searching for our roles on our name badges.
‘Much the same as you,’ replies [colleague] Sonia as the doors open and we walk out. We turn and smile at the new family and the midwife, whose shocked mouth describes a perfect O as the lift doors close.
The thing is, Sonie is right. We are the deathwives. And it’s a privilege, every time.
This book has to be a contender for the prize. It’s not my personal favourite, but I wouldn’t be upset if it won. (9/10)
See also Clare’s review.
Source: Own copy. Kathyn Mannix, With the End in Mind (William Collins, 2017), hardback, 352 pages. BUY at AMAZON UK (affiliate link)