Fissures in wedlock
Love, fidelity, jealousy and desire are some of the issues explored in two new novels about marriage—one by a seasoned writer known for her brevity and psychological portraits, the other a debut by one of Nigeria’s freshest voices.
Both books examine the easy power of sexual desire and the troubled untangling of domestic ties. And despite the differences in time and place, both novels feature protagonists with a loneliness at their core—acutely aware of what divides them from their family and friends.
Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca may be the ultimate second-wife story, and Lily Tuck uses it as a touchstone for her seventh novel. Sisters relates a very personal story of an unnamed narrator, her family—including her husband and stepchildren—and the all-too-real presence of her husband’s first wife known only as she. It is she that the narrator is fixated on, her marriage, her mothering style, her aptitude at the piano, even her dog. Nothing in the narrator’s experience can equal her husband’s first marriage, his life with her in France, even his affair and subsequent divorce. With a mixture of curiosity, envy and compulsion, the narrator’s preoccupation with her threatens all current relationships, not just with her husband but with his son and daughter as well.
Tuck eschews a climactic confrontation and prefers to quietly highlight the damage caused by obsession, exposing the risks of paying back betrayal with betrayal. Though the conclusion feels abrupt, the story is elegantly told and the portrait of a marriage unflinching.
Set against the turbulent politics of Nigeria in the 1980s, Ayobami Adebayo’s debut, Stay with Me, tells the story of a marriage that frays under the forces of fidelity and fertility. Yejide and Akin met and fell in love at university. Four years after they married, Yejide is running a successful salon, and Akin is comfortably employed as well. But they remain childless. The couple tries fertility doctors, healers, pilgrimages and charms until, under the pressure of Nigerian ideals of masculinity, Akin’s family insists he take a second wife, going so far as to bring the young woman to their home. To say this causes havoc would be an understatement. Yet, when Yejide finally does get pregnant, the results take an enormous toll on the couple.
Though the tragedies of Stay with Me are melodramatic in scope, Adebayo displays a quiet empathy when the couple confronts the truth of their fertility problems and struggle with sickle cell anemia (an enormous problem in Nigeria, where one in four people is infected). Stay with Me offers a unique look at a couple coping with biological forces that are out of their control and a marriage that is tested almost beyond endurance.
Though very different in style, scope and setting, these two novels are a welcome addition to the exploration of marriage in fiction, examining the boundaries and the limitlessness of love between two—or even three—people.