Whilst Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, is not a book club pick of mine until far later in the year, I was intrigued to begin it early after it was longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is also a book which I have seen on so many blogs and BookTube channels, and which is receiving a lot of hype. The Guardian, for instance, call it ‘a literary sensation’. To me, the novel sounded very intriguing, and I expected that it would offer a clever blend of contemporary satire and thriller.
I enjoyed the opening of My Sister, the Serial Killer, which begins in rather a gripping way. Set in Lagos, the entirety is told from the perspective of a Nigerian nurse named Korede. Her younger sister, Ayoola, has had several boyfriends who have met sticky ends. When, at the outset of the novel, Korede is told that Ayoola has killed her current boyfriend, her reaction is: ‘I had hoped I would never hear those words again.’ She helps Ayoola to transport his body ‘to where we took the last one – over the bridge and into the water. At least he won’t be lonely.’ Later in the novel, she muses upon why Ayoola feels the need to kill her partners; she pleads self defence, but Korede doubts her: ‘Victim? Is it mere coincidence that Ayoola has never had a mark on her, from any of these incidents with these men, not even a bruise?’
Korede is practical and dependable. She helps her sister in many ways, from giving her advice about how much of a social media break she should take in order to come across as a grieving girlfriend and not a suspect, to cleaning up murder scenes. Whilst Ayoola is the dramatic and self-obsessed sister, Korede is calculating, cold, and emotionless. She demonstrates very little compassion toward her sister’s victims, and seems to almost revel in the fact that she is able to use her handy little cleaning tips and tricks to get blood out of carpets, and the like. When she turns up to the first crime scene, for example, she reflects: ‘Perhaps a normal person would be angry, but what I feel now is a pressing need to dispose of the body. When I got here, we carried him to the boot of my car, so that I was free to scrub and mop without having to countenance his cold stare.’ She reveals the levels of pride which she takes in her work: ‘I don’t know whether or not they have the tech for a thorough crime scene investigation in Lagos, but Ayoola could never clean up as efficiently as I can.’
Korede places so much emphasis within the novel about her plainness and her sister’s beauty. Of her sister, she says: ‘Hers is the body of a music video vixen, a scarlet woman, a succubus. It belies her angelic face.’ She references how loved her sister is so many times that it begins to get tiresome. Despite Korede’s respectable job, few people actually seem to respect her. Her family take her for granted, people at work largely ignore her, and her voice sometimes goes unheard. I could not warm to Korede at all, and did not find her convincing enough as a character. Her narrative voice was too ordinary to add a great deal to the story, and those moments in which she did become more interesting due to her actions were not focused upon.
The sense of place created within My Sister, the Serial Killer is a little disappointing. When Korede is sitting in the doctor’s office, for instance, she says that the doctor ‘rarely puts on the air conditioner and his window is usually open. He told me he likes to hear Lagos while he works – the never-ending car horns, the shouts of hawkers and tires screeching on the road. Now Lagos listens to him.’ We are given mainly the sound of Lagos; its smell, and often its sights, have been largely ignored by the author, and thus an important sensory element is missing. There was such an opportunity to display Nigeria’s capital here, and the way in which Korede and Ayoola have been affected by their environment, but little is explored aside from the confines of their house.
Sadly, the intriguing beginning was not carried through the entire novel, and it became rather staid and stale. My Sister, the Serial Killer is not quite the satirical work which I was hoping for. I found both the tone and pacing inconsistent, and it did not capture my attention after the first quarter or so. The first few chapters held a lot of promise, but I did find that it quickly shifted to the more mundane elements of Korede’s life. I did enjoy the way in which it was told in very short chapters at first, but after a while, it felt a little too choppy and disconnected in consequence. It was as though some of the chapters had very little to say. The prose, too, is a little plain and matter-of-fact at times, and there are no real moments of emotion within it. Instead, the characters feel largely flat and unconvincing.
The sibling rivalry between Korede and Ayoola has been looked at, but the relationship which both women have with their mother has been left largely unexplored. I did not learn a great deal about their mother; she is a secondary figure, who is always wafting around the peripheries, but never really becomes solid. She seems solely focused upon finding a nice, wealthy husband for Ayoola, but gives none of the same consideration to Korede. I also feel as though there could have been more conflict between the sisters here; their conversations and squabbles often feel a little flat, and there is not as much justification as I would have liked for Korede’s opinions of her sister.
There are no real conclusions drawn here, and in several ways, My Sister, the Serial Killer felt more like a first or second draft than a finished novel. Some of the tropes which Braithwaite has chosen to use were a little obvious and overdone – for instance, the good-looking younger sibling whom everyone seems to prefer, and the absent father figure. There is very little focus, too, placed upon the murders, or Ayoola’s motives. I expected the novel to be far darker than it was.
Had the plot been tightened up somewhat, and some of the more superfluous and repetitive chapters been removed, I feel that I would have had a far more enjoyable, and memorable, reading experience. My Sister, the Serial Killer had a lot of potential, which I do not feel was fully realised. Whilst the novel is readable, it felt quite underwhelming, and found myself expecting a lot more from it than it delivered.