‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’ by Oyinkan Braithwaite **

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.

9781786495976I 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.

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Penguin Moderns: Cyprian Ekwensi and Jack Kerouac

Glittering City by Cyprian Ekwensi *** (#32) 9780241339848
In Cyprian Ekwensi’s short story, ‘untrustworthy, charming Fussy Joe spins tall tales and breaks hearts in this rollicking story set in the “sensational city” of 1960s Lagos.’  First published in 1966, reading Glittering City was my first taste of Ekwensi’s work.  I found that the opening descriptions of person and place helped to set the tone of the whole, rather than paying too much attention to the scene.  I did find that Nigeria was used barely at all as a setting, aside from several short and random descriptions of Lagos.  I know that this is a short story, but I would have enjoyed more content like this within it.

Fussy Joe has depth to him, and comes across largely as an untrustworthy creep.  When the story begins, he takes a young girl, who has arrived alone at the train station, back to his room in another part of Lagos.  It is here that she begins to feel frightened: ‘All of the tales she had heard about the bad men of the city came crawling back.  They were the exciting stories they whispered after lights out in the boarding-house.’

I felt rather uncomfortable whilst reading parts of this story.  Whilst I enjoyed Ekwensi’s prose style, and found the whole well written and nicely paced, there were elements which detracted from my enjoyment.  I did not like Fussy Joe at all, or his constant dishonesty; he tells various people that he is employed in all manner of different jobs, and has several women on the go at once.

Throughout, I could not quite tell in which the direction the story was going, and it did surprise me in a couple of places.  There did feel at times as though there was too much going on in the story, and whilst I enjoyed some elements, others I felt indifferent to, or disliked altogether.   I’m not going to rush to read any of Ekwensi’s other work, but I would be intrigued to try another of his short stories at some point, just to see how it compares.


cover-jpg-rendition-460-707Piers of the Homeless Night by Jack Kerouac *** (#33)
I do really enjoy Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s work, and was looking forward to reading these ‘soaring, freewheeling snapshots of life on the road across America.’  Piers of the Homeless Night, which is the thirty-third publication on the Penguin Moderns list, is composed of two journal entries – ‘Piers of the Homeless Night’ and ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’ – which were first published in Lonesome Traveler (1960).

I tend to find that Kerouac has a lot to say about American society, and that is certainly the case here.  The stream-of-consciousness style, with its longer than usual run-on sentences did take me a little while to get into, but it works on the whole.  I admire Kerouac’s writing, largely in that I would find it impossible to emulate.  His prose is fascinating, too.  There is structure here, but elements of both journal entries are a little garbled and confusing.  If this was the first work of Kerouac’s which I had read, I would be largely indifferent to picking up anything else by him.  As it is, I enjoyed On the Road and Maggie Cassidy far more than I did Piers of the Homeless Night.

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‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is surely one of the most eagerly anticipated books of 2013 for a whole slew of literary fiction fans. Adichie has stunned and startled with her two previous novels, Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus, and many have high hopes for her latest offering.

At the outset, we are introduced to one of the main protagonists of the novel, Ifemelu. She is currently undertaking a fellowship at Princeton University, drawn to the city due to its ‘lack of a smell… perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelt of neglect. Baltimore smelt of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage’. Ifemelu has just posted her farewell onto her popular lifestyle blog, entitled ‘Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black’. Her reasons for this choice are outlined in the following way: ‘Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false’.

Ifemelu is a Nigerian who has been living in the United States for over a decade. Contrary to the popular opinions of those around her who struggle to understand her choice, she decides to go back to her native country: ‘Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her teeth in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil’. Her aunt, also living in America, is one of the many who is flabbergasted at her drastic lifestyle change: ‘”You are closing your blog and selling your condo to go back to Lagos and work for a magazine that doesn’t pay that well,” Aunty Uju had said and then repeated herself, as though to make Ifemelu see the gravity of her own foolishness.’

The second chapter of the novel follows Ifemelu’s former love in Nigeria, Obinze. From his
introduction onwards, a lot of politics creeps into the story, until it is filled with the brim with both accusations and musings on global society. Adichie is clearly well informed in such things, but her newest offering seems to be driven more by politics than character and plot. Unlike in her other novels, this political element is not used as a backdrop which the characters live against, but as an overarching device to try and drive the plot along. As a result, Americanah is bogged down in mounds of such commentary at times. There are interesting enough comments on how deeply entrenched social values conflict with the world’s new advances – technology particularly, and the ease of movement around the globe for its citizens, for example – but it begins to feel repetitive after a while.

Throughout, Adichie focuses on the everyday events which do not shape us, but which fill our time regardless. At the start of the novel, a long scene ensues in which Ifemelu is having her hair braided in rather an anonymous sounding and rundown salon named Mariama’s. Adichie seems particularly eager to describe the neglect and the violence of American society alongside its positive points for immigrants. Americanah is essentially a novel about choices, and how the ones we make can alter our lives altogether – how a move to America can give better prospects for immigrants, but how the homesickness of their previous life can creep in and threaten to overthrow their stability.

 Sadly, Americanah does not match up in any way to the wondrous Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. It does essentially follow the same pattern – the divide between rich and poor, the notion of identity, the disparities between different countries, societies and groups of people, and a love story or two thrown in – but it does not have the same entrancing power as her other novels. Whilst in her previous books her scenes and characters have both felt real, those in Americanah are essentially flat and lifeless. The protagonists here are not at all easy to care about. It feels as though there is a kind of wall of detachment which has been built up around them, which is essentially impenetrable for the reader. The novel is well written, and there are some powerful scenes within its pages, but there are no real undercurrents or surprises which serve to pull the reader in. The main storyline is not strong enough to carry the book forwards, and it seems to fizzle out before it ever really gets going. Whilst Adichie is clearly a gifted author, Americanah does not showcase the talents which are so apparent and prominent in her previous novels.