BOOK REVIEW: Darkly comedic slashfest raises serious questions about sibling solidarity
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel is a brilliant, economically written tale about the ties that bind two sisters
“Ayoola summons me with these words — ‘Korede, I killed him.’ I had hoped I would never hear those words again.”
These are the opening lines of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, which made it on to the Booker Prize 2019 longlist. At 226 pages, it’s a brilliant, economically written tale about the ties that bind two sisters — one a serial killer, the other a nurse. The darkly comedic story raises some serious questions about sibling solidarity and rivalry.
The dutiful Korede, whose career is in the healing profession, is forced to become a crime-scene cleaner, disposing of the bodies of her sister’s victims and removing any trace of their existence. “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood,” she tells us early on, as she’s about to haul out her gloves and scrubbing brush yet again while also fretting about dinner getting cold.
Tall and plain, she works at a hospital in Lagos, Nigeria, while her beautiful younger sister, Ayoola, has developed the unfortunate habit of murdering her boyfriends. Braithwaite interrogates the theme of beauty as a virtue throughout the novel, as well as the power it has to blind people to the truth. Musing on how Ayoola succeeds in getting away with murder, Korede says: “It’s because she is beautiful, you know. That’s all it is. They don’t really care about the rest of it. She gets a pass at life.”
For Korede, this is how it’s always been. Ayoola would break a glass and she would be blamed for giving her the drink. If Ayoola failed at school, she would be blamed for not coaching her. If Ayoola stole an apple from the store, she would be blamed for letting her sister go hungry.
Braithwaite doesn’t let Korede off too lightly for her complicity though, calling her out for her own morally dubious decisions. Yes, she’s in a difficult position, but it’s sometimes hard to believe that she continues to make the wrong choices regarding Ayoola and her crimes. But as Braithwaite writes, “no-one is innocent in this world. Why, go up to your maternity ward! All those smiling parents and their newborns? Murderers and victims. Every one of them.”
Told by women, and with a largely female cast made up of a cloying mother, jealous colleagues and annoying aunts, the tone is disarmingly light-hearted
Much of the lightness of the book comes from the exchanges between the sisters. “Maybe she is reaching out because she has sent another man to his grave prematurely. Or maybe she wants to know if I can buy eggs on the way home. Either way, I’m not picking up,” Korede remarks when she refuses to answer another of Ayoola’s insistent calls.
Unsurprisingly, Ayoola is a social media maven. Constantly distracted by her phone, she has words with Korede about how soon is too soon to post a selfie after her latest boyfriend has “disappeared”. Though it would be implausible to write a novel about young Nigerian twenty-something year-olds without referring to social media, Braithwaite uses the references to point out just how reckless the ditsy Ayoola’s behaviour is: what is the motive behind the murders she commits?
This is a story about women in a society in which domestic violence is often seen as socially acceptable. Told by women, and with a largely female cast made up of a cloying mother, jealous colleagues and annoying aunts, the tone is disarmingly lighthearted, and Brathwaite moves the story along rapidly through a series of quick chapters, each functioning as its own mini story within a story.
Braithwaite’s ultimately dark comic novel is also compelling while the popular narrative is flooded with stories of powerful male serial killers and their objectified (or eclipsed) female victims. How entertaining then to read about the uncomplicated and childishly devious brain of Ayoola. Yes, the monster is elevated as usual, but what a welcome change that it’s a young woman this time.