They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but with a title as good as My Sister, The Serial Killer, of course I had to immediately buy this book when I came across my Amazon dash. The debut novel by Oyinkan Braithwaite promises a lot with that title, as well as a knock-out of an opening, but its qualities are far more than skin deep. Korede, a studious and serious-minded nurse living and working in Lagos has her fair share of family problems. Her mother has seemingly no interest in her welfare, she remains troubled by the past abuses of her late father, and her gorgeous sister Ayoola has formed a troublesome habit of killing her boyfriends. As a loyal older sibling, Korede finds herself becoming an exert cleaner of crime scenes, efficient and forward-thinking where Ayoola is impulsive and used to having everyone else fix her problems. But family loyalty will only carry them so far when Ayoola sets her sights on Korede’s handsome doctor colleague, the man Korede has admired from afar for a long time.
Complicated sibling relationships are ten a penny in literature. What is the centuries old canon of culture if not an endless war between brothers and sisters? Korede and Ayoola’s problems aren’t quite Kane and Abel level - although murder certainly gets in the way - but their co-dependent bond feels all too familiar, even with the stabby twists. This is a pair of women bound by blood, in more ways than one, and a shared childhood trauma that has manifested in different ways for each of them as they’ve grown older. Korede craves neatness and order, in part because she feels duty bound as the older sibling to provide such stability, while Ayoola has no qualms in exploiting her incredible beauty and men’s one-track-minds to get what she wants since hey, they’re going to demand it anyway so why not cash in at the same time?
Korede’s narration is bound up in the contradictions of familial love: How do you hate someone so much that you’ll still do anything for them? There’s a compelling intimacy to the way she goes from quietly bragging about her ability to clean up large amounts of blood to the emotional turmoil she finds herself in with the secret love of her life. She’s evidently complicit in her sister’s crimes and makes no excuses for that, even as she repeatedly chastises not only Ayoola but the people around her who continue to worship the ground she walks on. It’s almost like a Regency comedy of manners: The older spinster sister constantly trying to fend off her younger sister’s eager suitors, only the stakes are literally life or death and the solitude of the English countryside has been replaced by the loud and sweaty city life of Lagos. Korede is a very easy protagonist to root for, even when she’s disposing of bodies, and becomes more sympathetic as the bleakness of her childhood is revealed. She wants a simple stabbing-free life - don’t we all? - and believes she has a chance at it with Tade, a doctor at the hospital where she works who is handsome, caring, loves children and prefers to save lives over ending them. Of course, it doesn’t take him long to discover Ayoola, and despite her obvious knowledge of her sister’s interest in this man, she sees no harm in stringing him along for a bit.
Braithwaite has enough of a keen eye to allow Ayoola to be simultaneously very easy to hate and sympathize with. She is a woman who has been through hell like her sister but benefits greatly from being incredibly beautiful and confident. Ayoola is careless and flighty and doesn’t seem all that upset about the men she keeps killing out of ‘self-defence’, but she’s also evidently tainted by the abuse of her father in a way she has internalized with unexpected results. Korede’s life is defined by compromise in a way Ayoola’s is not, but the scars run just as deep.
That title that grabs you by the throat is accurate to the content of the story - as Korede herself notes, once you get past three victims, you’re technically a serial killer, Ayoola - but Braithwaite is more interested in the trauma left behind and the unusual ways it manifests. How, for example, does a modern Nigerian woman deal with pretending to mourn their missing boyfriend when all they want to do is upload pictures to Instagram? How does one carve out a life for themselves when society’s overwhelming demand is for you to learn how to cook and get ready for marriage? When the father that you knew as a monster is mourned as a good man by the most respected figures in society, do you shut up and go along with it or let everyone know, even if they’ll never believe you?
The other big question surrounding My Sister, the Serial Killer is one of intent: Is Ayoola truly acting in self-defence? Is it a crusade against manipulative and sexist men as revenge for what happened to her as a child? Or is she just doing it because she can? And what do our instinctive responses to what she does say about us? We are still societally bound by the notion that women just aren’t capable of the same kind of brutality as men. My Sister, the Serial Killer is a sly f*ck you to that concept, but also one with enough empathy make you painfully aware of how cycles of abuse are perpetuated.
Some readers may find the ending a tad undercooked but its weary inevitability of what has happened and what will happen are key parts to understanding Korede and Ayoola’s pain and anger. By the time this short read its finished, you’ll have been so entertained by the pitch black humour and the bloodshed that you won’t even have noticed how much of that traumatic aftermath you’ve absorbed. My Sister, the Serial Killer is best read in one sitting and signals a bright future for Braithwaite.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is now available to read wherever you get your books from.
Header Image Source: Doubleday Books