My Sister, the Serial Killer
Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite’s freshly shucked thriller is obsessed with surfaces – the glint of a knife in the back, the sheen of a scrubbed floor, the narcissistic mirrored reflection on a Snapchat post. Her writing style skates along the top too, in the voice of Korede, a nurse in Lagos who knows how to surgically clean up blood spills because she works in a hospital – this comes in handy when her sister Ayoola’s lovers start disappearing.
Here Braithwaite takes crime fiction into a playful and mischievous space, forgoing fast action for the banal interior lives of Korede’s family, trapped in her father’s house that’s too expensive to sell, while she negotiates the corruption of the police force and the traffic jams in Lagos.
It’s strikingly original. Braithwaite sets the Offspring-like inner workings of the hospital, and an almost Mills & Boon style – sisters squabbling over the central love interest, the too-good-to-be-true Dr Tade – against a ruthless examination of a culture where Korede’s father beats his daughters and wife as he tries to sell Ayoola off to a local chief, who points out the 14-year-old girls he wants to marry with his bejewelled cane.
At its heart is the idea of beauty and how far it can take you, how quickly it morphs into ugliness. Korede is all too aware of her own failings but she is continually overshadowed by Ayoola, whose loveliness lets her get away with everything: cheating on men, a lack of compassion and humour, disloyalty to her sister, and the suspicious death of one boyfriend. Then another. Then one more. Ayoola’s apparent vapidness soon turns into something sinister.
It’s a delicate act juggling the flatness of the descriptive prose with such sly humour. With its emphasis on Ayoola’s boyfriends, whose absences are at the heart of the story, occasionally the pace seems weighed down – like the dead bodies under the bridge. There can be a reach to irony that doesn’t always get there.
But Braithwaite’s background as a spoken-word poet shows in her debut’s entertaining and punch-in-the-gut style. Korede, as a type, may be the one often sidelined in narratives – bustling with common sense, always pragmatic, sacrificing her feelings and looking on as others are rewarded – but her strong and often bitter-twisted voice remains clear and strong.
Atlantic, 240pp, $27.99
CORRECTION: In The Saturday Paper’s print edition, this review was incorrectly attributed to Catie McLeod.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer". Subscribe here.