Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018)
Review by Lee Horsley
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s widely acclaimed debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, is a fast-paced, sharply observed, often darkly humorous portrait of the complex, protective relationship between two sisters, one of whom has the unfortunate habit of ending relationships by killing her boyfriends.
The events of the novel are driven by the actions of Ayoola, a beautiful, self-centred young woman. She has no shortage of young men who are in love with her but they all seem to find it exceptionally difficult to master the art of keeping her happy. Affairs often end badly. Her elder sister, Korede, a hard-working nurse, understands her responsibility with an unfailing if sometimes weary devotion. We see the events of the novel from her point of view – the observer whose complicity lies in getting out the bleach, disposing of bodies, or simply torching the scene of the crime.
Korede has committed herself to concealing from public view the violent realities of her sister’s romantic entanglements:
“On their one-month anniversary, she stabbed him in the bathroom of his apartment. She didn’t mean to, of course. He was angry, screaming at her, his onion-stained breath hot against her face. (But why was she carrying the knife?) The knife was for her protection. You never knew with men, they wanted what they wanted when they wanted it. She didn’t mean to kill him; she wanted to warn him off, but he wasn’t scared of her weapon. He was over six feet tall and she must have looked like a doll to him, with her small frame, long eyelashes and rosy, full lips.”
Braithwaite says in her interview with The LA Review of Books that when she was writing the novel the sisters came to her first, and that the rest grew out of their relationship: “Once I understood who they were to one another, it was left for me to imagine why they were that way, how much of who they were was genetic and how much was as a result of what they had been through.”
Like Adrian McKinty in The Chain, Braithwaite confronts us with the question of how far we would go to protect those we love. Her objective, she says, is to explore the ties of love and loyalty between the sisters, both the formation of their relationship in a childhood spent with a violent and capricious father, and the testing of their bond as Ayoola’s impulsive violence becomes increasingly out of control.
Talking to Richard Lea in The Guardian Braithwaite says that her own responsibilities as the first-born were impressed on her at an early age and that, as an older sibling, she was brought up to understand the responsibility Korede feels to look after Ayoola – remembering how her own mother once told her that as the big sister she had to be “like a dustbin. You’ve got to take whatever shit, whatever rubbish comes your way. And you have to be gracious about it.” In the novel, when asked whether she oughtn’t to report her sister’s crimes, Korede says, “No, because we are hardwired to protect and remain loyal to the people we love. Besides, no one is innocent in this world.”
Braithwaite was born in Lagos, where the novel is set, but lived and studied in the UK for many years before moving back to Lagos in 2012. Still only in her early 30s, she is already recognized as an outstanding writer. She has been a successful spoken-word artist and a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and My Sister, the Serial Killer has won the LA Times Award for Best Crime Thriller in 2019 and the 2020 Crime and Thriller Book of the Year in the British Book Awards, as well as being short- and long-listed for numerous other awards, including the Booker. My Sister, the Serial Killer was one of the most entertaining of the year’s reads, and Crimeculture is very much looking forward to the future work of this immensely skilled writer.
Noirwich Crime Writing Festival
Oyinkan Braithwaite will be in conversation with debut crime novelist Femi Kayode on 12 Sept. 2020.
The Festival is online, and “My Sister, The Serial Killer: Oyinkan Braithwaite” will be available free of charge at 7.30 pm on YouTube.