‘Korede, he’s dead’
Every time Korede gets a call from her younger sister she knows nothing but trouble is ahead. Ayoola is young and pretty but (and it’s a big BUT) there’s a worrying trend of her boyfriends turning up dead. Things become tense when Korede’s long-time workplace crush sets his eyes on Ayoola.
The story is told from Korede’s point of view as she helps Ayoola clean up her messes and tries to prevent any more from happening. The book is structured in short chapters which is beneficial for people like myself who aren’t big fans of lengthy book chapters.
I started My Sister, The Serial Killer with eagerness and high expectations; rightly so—it was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. Similarly, I was excited that there was a mainstream crime novel by an African author—which is something you don’t see often (in my experience). The novel has also received quite a significant promotional push from its UK publisher Atlantic Books, which is how it originally came to my attention. If from London, for example, you may have come across one of the book’s posters plastered throughout various London Underground stations.
The protagonist, Korede isn’t the most likeable of people but she seems reliable and streetwise, someone who makes you feel the narration is in safe hands. Through her eyes we see Ayoola is actually the chalk to her cheese—someone who is more accurately described as naive, impulsive, and easy-going. Although for the reader this character mix is what makes Ayoola intriguing to know, it’s also these very characteristics that make Korede feel she has to be very protective of her. It’s not a criticism per se but I do wish Korede’s character was fleshed out a bit more—she doesn’t seem to have much of a life of her own since she’s always worried about her sister. Having a girlfriend or two she could confide in would have perhaps made things interesting and provided opportunities to reveal other sides to her character. Something that was left quite vague was Ayoola’s intentions behind the murders of her boyfriends. She always claimed they were self-defence but the narrative leaves much room for doubt - perhaps she is just a cold-blooded murderer. But then again, perhaps she isn’t.
I very much enjoyed that this novel took place against a Nigerian backdrop—from character names to interactions with family and the police; Nigeria culture was seeped in throughout. For example, Korode records many interactions with her family’s house girl - in Nigerian/ African households this is typically a live-in member of staff hired to maintain the house and do chores such cooking meals. The house girl is never referred to by name - an indication perhaps of her lowly status, as house girls usually come from lower-class backgrounds. From her presence we can deduce Korode likely comes from quite a wealthy family (middle-upper class.) Yet, I couldn’t help feeling like I wanted more sensory description. I wanted to read more about the sights, smells and sounds that are linked to Korode’s surroundings and Lagos in general. The bustling markets, chaotic traffic-jammed roads and the charismatic street hawkers selling anything imaginable. To know what I’m talking about all you have to do is read a book like The Kite Runner where the description is so elaborate that you feel as if you have literally been transported to Kabul, Pakistan. Maybe my expectation stems from the fact I am a Western reader who struggles to connect to places, like Nigeria, where I have never lived or even visited before. Then again, there isn’t much opportunity to provide such a description because the book has limited settings - Korede pretty much spends her time following her sister or going between work and home, so the settings quickly become familiar.
The sisterly dynamic is an interesting one to observe as it seems that Ayoola’s looks brings lots of attention from men and literally helps her get away with murder. Of the two it is Ayoola who is favoured by her mother and is used to always having her own way. Korede, on the other hand, comes across as quite plain and is not as close to her mum who always believes she could be taking better care of her beloved sister. It’s unfortunate that the elements of the crime genre fail to come through in this book. For example, there wasn’t a high level of suspense lurking throughout the story that has us guessing if Ayoola and Korode would get caught. I would almost go as far as saying that if it was just a regular novel about two sisters living life in Nigeria it would be equally as—if not more—interesting.
All of this said, I enjoyed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s style of writing: simple and easy to follow with pinches of humour dotted in the storyline. In terms of Nigerian authors we hear a lot about the Chimanada and the Chinua Agebes of the literary world. There can therefore be a tendency to shine the spotlight on a few at the expense of the numerous many on the rise or yet to be discovered. Oyinkan is an exciting glimpse into what will be an exciting new generation of Nigerian authors. I just hope publishers continue to work hard to find diverse talent like her and provide a platform for their stories. As this is her debut book, I look forward to seeing what books she will write and publish in the future. A sequel to My Sister, the Serial Killer would be interesting and something I would consider reading if it was told from Ayoola’s point of view. She is ultimately the story’s centrepiece and since her character is one that is more fleshed out in comparison to her sister’s it would also be a more refreshing perspective.
My Sister, The Serial Killer
By Oyinkan Braithwaite
188 pages. 2018.