Longlisted for the Booker Prize this year, this deadpan Nigerian novel, part-crime, and part drama-comedy, is exactly the kind of book to read when you’re not looking for answers. Oyinkan Braithwaite, a graduate of Kingston University and assistant editor at Kachifo Limited, a Nigerian publishing press, wrote this book almost as a mistake.
But mistake would imply this book wasn’t meant to be, which is far from the truth. After her short story, The Driver, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, she knew she had to write a great novel. But when one puts oneself under great pressure, one often doesn’t succeed. Instead there came My Sister, The Serial Killer, described by Braithwaite herself as something fun she wrote for herself.
The inadvertent thriller
Following the story of two sisters, Ayoola and Korede, My Sister, The Serial Killer puts an exciting twist on the thriller genre, surpassing the need for tidy story-telling, and instead spilling family secrets, jealously and love everywhere without a neat ending or a decisive climax. Korede is a nurse at one of Lagos’s best hospitals and imagines a life where Doctor Tade falls in love with her and she lives happily, cooking delicious cakes for him, revealing the secret of her ultra-white uniform. But her life is quite the opposite.
Her late father, who physically abused his daughters and wife, often bringing home his mistresses, has left psychological scars on his family that they are all recovering from. Her mother, who still needs Ambien to get a proper night’s sleep, favours her younger daughter Ayoola, and believes Korede must be responsible for her well-being.
Ayoola herself is a successful designer, the kind of woman all men are attracted to, whom perhaps even Doctor Tade would find more interest in. But there is one thing about Ayoola which no one knows but her sister – that she has a habit of killing her boyfriends in “self-defence.”
“Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again.”
This is how the book begins. There’s no time to waste.
Humour in the darkness
The story is told from the point of view of Korede, the responsible, hardworking, and earning elder sister who has unfortunately not inherited the good looks in the family. While helping her sister dispose of a body she thinks: “I watched a TEDx video once where the man said that carrying around a notebook and penning one happy moment each day had changed his life. That is why I bought the notebook. On the first page I wrote, I saw a white owl through my bedroom window. The notebook has been mostly empty since.”
The obvious darkness of this book is cut by humour; the kind of writing that would require extreme finesse and attention to detail. It is almost hard to imagine this is Braithwaite’s debut novel. All the characters are matter-of-fact. There’s a conscious decision to not stay put in the dark place. The relationship explored between the sister switches from cleaning blood in bathtubs to spending time at home where Korede cooks along with the housemaid and Ayoola receives roses from her multiple admirers.
Although Braithwaite doesn’t let us linger, the reader can guess how sad Korede is. She is far too aware of her own inadequacies, and yet she is stubborn because she doesn’t want to be defined by society. She suspects her sister isn’t killing out of self-defence. But she loves her enough to not stay up at night to think of reasons why. She has a protective instinct, but she is bitter about taking over too much responsibility.
All this one knows with barely any use of language that lends itself to an in-depth character analysis. Perhaps this is because Braithwaite is a recognised spoken word artist, adept at invoking multiple emotions with very few words. She wrote each chapter of this book in separate word documents, so that each story was self-contained and evolved into a novel with sparse language, but vibrant in its experience of family duty, social media, sisterhood, and love.
The Nigerian experience?
Perhaps it is the trauma of an abusive father that leads Ayoola to kill her boyfriends. Or perhaps they really do attack her and she has to defend herself. Maybe she just kills them because she can. The point is, there is finally a book about a female serial killer.
This is a crime novel that doesn’t have elaborate descriptions of the mutilated bodies of women. The men are all, instead, supporting characters. Even the father, who plays a huge role in the lives of these women, does not overshadow the plot. And the story is the kind one can read in a single sitting; perhaps even a full day is too long for this book.
Braithwaite’s honest and to the point story-telling is also reflected in her interviews when she speaks of the experience of writing this book. In an interview with The Guardian, she says: “I wouldn’t want to write a novel and people feel that I’m speaking to a Nigerian experience – I’m speaking to my experience, to the things I’m interested in, and that’s all I can do.”
She has often been candid about the pressures of representing the African continent when publishing a book as a Nigerian author. In her acknowledgements too, Braithwaite thanks novelist Ayobami Adebayo “for taking the time to add the accents to my Yoruba. One day, I shall be as fluent as a Lagos goat.” Braithwaite spent her childhood and university years in the UK.
Although the setting of Lagos is important to story and she is quick to address the corruption in her city, Braithwaite isn’t writing a story about Nigeria. She is writing about female relationships that are of interest to her. And it isn’t difficult to imagine a Korede and Ayoola is our own country, where elder siblings too are often given the responsibility of taking care of the younger ones.
If a book about a female serial killer isn’t already attractive enough, Braithwaite is also a talented graphic designer. She designed the cover art for her book: A woman holding up cleaning supplies, with the reflection of a hand holding a knife shining through her spectacles. The title is splattered on the glossy cover, standing upright in neon green. The cover is just as irresistible as the writing itself. Bold, dashing and impressionable. Braithwaite is an author to watch out for.
My Sister, The Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Doubleday.