Title: My Sister, the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a debut book by a Nigerian author, longlisted for the Booker Prize 2019. Set in Lagos, with mindless killings at the center of the plot, it is a study of complicated human relationships and sibling fidelity.
Korede is a hard working nurse in a large hospital, compassionate, meticulous, observant and a disciplinarian. In sharp contrast is her younger sister Ayoola, strikingly beautiful, seductress, careless and with no moral compass.
Ayoola has a string of men always at her beck and call but curiously all her boyfriends die a little while into the relationship. Ayoola tells her sister that she kills them in self defense and calls her to dispose off the bodies. The efficient nurse that Korede is, she does a clean job of tipping the bodies off a bridge. The killings happen with alarming regularity and Korede is forced to confront her sister and her own fears that float in her mind after all the bodies and men who get killed are highlighted by the media.
Why is Korede so protective of her sister even though Ayoola manipulates Korede to her own advantage, putting her love, reputation and life in jeopardy?
I am used to long rambling sentences, dreamy imagery and plenty of allegory in the Booker longlisted books. My Sister, the Serial Killer was a breath of fresh air because the writing is sparse and to-the-point. The title tells you exactly what to expect, which is good because in a thriller you want to be in the middle of action and things to move quickly.
The book does not deviate from the central theme at all and it’s a short book. The punches are subtle, like the corruption in Lagos that’s as normal as breathing to the people living there or the unlikely relationships that you develop in life, as of Korede’s with her comatose patient.
In spite of the unwavering focus of the book, Braithwaite has managed to introduce variation in the way the narrative works. There is a chapter that describes how bodies are disposed off in a question and answer format. There are observations by Korede that are put in parentheses, that goes very well with the pithy narrative and lends a wry humour to the book.
In spite of the killings, a dysfunctional family, deadly family secrets, infidelity, manipulation, jealousy, the story does not turn into a melancholic tale with heart-wrenching emotions. Instead it is an observation into cause-and-effect of human actions, a very realistic portrayal of how life really is – many times without rhyme or reason with an underlying humour of how some things remain unchanged.
When I started reading the book, I looked at the characters very closely; they are very well drawn; because this was a book about murders and a killer and I was looking for hidden motivations. Korede is so careful and meticulous that it seems almost like an OCD. Her observation is phenomenal – she sees the absent ring on the finger of married men, she understands the workings of desire and male attention even though she has not been at the receiving end. Ayoola seems like a sweet, misled girl who kills because she does not know any better. It is only later that her manipulative self is revealed. More layers from characters are peeled off as the story moves forward. Even Tade, the love interest of both sisters turns out to be a completely different person as the story progresses.
There are little touches that make the book memorable, the 9 inch long knife that Ayoola uses to kill her victims and that nearly kills her, the bleeding-to-death father and Ayoola being afraid of going to a stranger’s place, not understanding what she was getting into but latching on to her sisters dread. The little snippets tell the story of how families and siblings gravitate to each other for comfort and security when they have no one else to look out for them.
There are little details that do not sit well with me. The colossal inefficiency of the police, not just in Lagos but also in Dubai, the separate living quarters of the sisters in the beginning of the book and then moving into their common house, the mention of Whitney Houston and R. Kelly songs that are Ayoola’s favourite and then the mention of Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat in the same breath felt a little anachronistic.
A short read that examines familial loyalty, sibling rivalry and the legacy of abuse all in the backdrop of serial killings.
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