Having killed her previous boyfriends as acts of ‘self defence’, will Ayoola’s fourth suitor live to tell the tale? Oyinkan Braithwaite’s Women’s and Booker Prize long listed novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, makes for fiendishly wicked reading, says our contributor Carla Plieth.
Ironically, people nowadays are obsessed with serial killers. Podcasts, documentaries, and feature films elaborate on real crimes, in addition to the variety of fictional serial killers that haunt thrillers and crime stories on both the screen and page. More often than not our suspect will be a male serial killer who commits his crimes meticulously, from the moment of preparation to the act of covering it up. In Braithwaite’s compelling novel, the case is certainly different.
Korede thought she never had to hear those words again: “I killed him”. But she knows what to do, she has done it before: putting on rubber gloves, sponge in hand, she scrubs and mops away the blood of the man her sister has just killed, seemingly in self-defence. She rolls the man up in a carpet and makes her sister help bring him to her car, to be thrown over a bridge and never to be seen again by anyone in Lagos – or elsewhere. Yet, third time around, her younger sister Ayoola’s deed no longer strikes Korede as an accident but a habit. Three dead boyfriends are too much of a coincidence and Korede has to acknowledge: her sister is a serial killer. A narcissistic, lazy serial killer who relies on her to help cover up the murders and moves on as if she didn’t just cold-bloodedly stab her former boyfriends to death, no tears in sight. After all, she is Ayoola: beautiful and precious Ayoola who looks so innocent and lovely no one would suspect her of hurting a fly, least of all plotting to kill Tade, her latest suitor. If only he wasn’t a doctor at the hospital Korede works at, and if only Korede wasn’t in love with him herself. Can she protect both the man she loves and her own sister? Is blood thicker than love? (Fittingly, the work was originally published as an eBook in Nigeria under the title Thicker than Water).
Braithwaite draws a compelling family portrait in her native Lagos, one that shows two unlikely sisters: the social media affiliate, fashion-loving realisation of every man’s dream, Ayoola, and the unremarkable, careful, hard-working nurse, Korede. One is a carefree daughter, the other extremely conscientious. Their mother, however, is unaware that the sisters keep another secret besides their late father’s tyranny and their lack of grief over his death. She is oblivious to the sisters’ conflict bubbling under the surface, and so is everyone else: “Your sister just wants to be around you, you know. You are her best friend”. It is this conflict that Braithwaite brilliantly outlines in her novel, turning to the question of how two sisters can live with the secret that one of them is a notorious killer; a secret they can share with (almost) no one; a secret that threatens to – or already has – destroyed their relationship. Although Korede is strong and unflinching, she knows her metes and bounds. She may be able to make sure no blood is left behind, that all traces of her sister’s victims are erased from her car boot, but some things are beyond her control. Such as the comatose patient she told her troubles to waking up.
One of Braithwaite’s strong assets is her clear voice. Poignantly, Korede leads the reader through her narrative, through her moral dilemmas and her inner conflicts. The narrative voice mirrors herself: efficient, organised, and acute. If the story had been written differently, it could have been a tragedy or a thriller. It’s not a comedy either, but the subtle humour (Korede: “How was your trip?” Ayoola: “It was fine…except…he died”) adds a certain level of realism that elevates the story beyond its classification as a crime thriller. My Sister, the Serial Killer is not about Ayoola’s crimes per se; it is not about Korede’s repeated cover ups for her or someone finding out their secret. Rather, it is an account of a broken family that tries to keep themselves together and prevent their falling apart – quite literally, too. It’s about a love triangle in which there can only ever be one winner, really, and Korede is certain who that is going to be, who it was always going to be.
A quick read, My Sister, the Serial Killer unfolds in short chapters that are mainly set at two locations in Lagos, Korede’s family home, and the hospital she works at, yet they don’t feel suppressing or restraining. Braithwaite manages to weave in Lagos’ atmosphere: the numbing heat, the destructive rain, discussions about Jollof rice, elements of Yoruba culture, a chief’s cane. It also captures millennial exasperation, the irony of a YouTube vlogging and Snapchatting murderous sister, and unreciprocated love. I could hear Korede sigh more than once about her happy-go-lucky sister, her sedative-addicted mother, her nail-painting colleagues at the hospital; about Tade, fallen head over heels in love with someone else, and about herself, coming to rescue her sister again and again. Although Braithwaite has written a wide range of well-rounded characters in her novel, Korede stands out due to her commitment to a role she never asked nor wished for yet dutifully takes on in the knowledge that nobody else would do it as meticulously as her. I wish there were more female characters like her in fiction. Surprisingly, in a positive way, gender is addressed less pivotally than one might expect from a novel with such a provocative title. If at all, the novel comments on the saying that all is not gold that glitters, and a pretty appearance and cute smile can shield and protect a scrupulous, dangerous individual. But wouldn’t we wish for the same if the killer were our own flesh and blood?
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is published by Atlantic Books and can be purchased in all good bookshops and online. It certainly warrants the praise it gets and its place on the shortlist of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Booker Prize long list. For more information about Braithwaite click here.
Feature Image of Oyinkan Braithwaite by Studio 24.