Next up, from the Women’s Prize Longlist came Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, an interesting parallel to Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater.
It is an intriguing little novel – a mere 240 pages, for those for whom that is relevant, not much more than a day or weekend’s read – and remarkably effective in the sparseness of its chapters. An object lesson to many writers that less, indeed, can be more. The title, essentially gives away the basic plot premise: our narrator, Korede, is a nurse in Lagos, Nigeria, and is engaged in a perpetual task of managing her sister Ayoola, and cleaning up her love life, literally, as she seems to regularly end up killing her boyfriends and lovers. As the opening words of the novel state with a concise and bitter humour,
Ayoola summons me with these words—Korede, I killed him.
I had hoped I would never hear those words again.
Much of the story and the relationships between the sisters is encapsulated in those two sentences: Korede’s powerlessness encapsulated by the verb “summons”; the dreadful power of the adverb “again”.
We enter the story, with these words, to the third dead boyfriend, Femi, whose presence in the novel is strangely potent for someone who dies before the opening page! His ghost and his poetry and his family haunt the novel, as they haunt Korede, not unlike Banquo’s ghost.
None of the violence done by Ayoola is ever shown within the pages of the novel and so we as reader are no better equipped than Korede to determine the honesty or reliability of her assertions that it was always in self-defense. But, as Korede says,
“Femi makes three, you know. Three, and they label you a serial killer.”
In many ways, this novel follows the trajectory of a thriller: Ayoola is a volatile and dangerous character, an archetypal femme fatale; Korede’s colleague and love interest, Dr Tade, is drawn into her enchantments; the police are simultaneously a threat and inept and corrupt. How will Korede prevent him from becoming the fourth – or is it fifth? – victim?
But the novel is so much richer than that simple thriller outline: the tensions and tortuous relationship between the sisters is poignant and bitter and sweet simultaneously; the patriarchal character of Korede and Ayoola’s father looms heavily in a range of flashbacks; the glimpses of Nigerian life are convincing and the dialogue true. And Ayoola herself is wonderful: too beautiful, too dazzling not to love, ephemeral and egotistical and somehow innocent despite being perpetually armed with a knife and involved in killings, adultery and apparently incapable of fidelity.
It is very much from Korede’s limited point-of-view and layers of reported speech and hearsay. Her eyes colour everything, especially the characterisation of Dr Tade. To what extent is he as angelic and gentle as he appears when he sings to children and humours the elderly? Is his falling for Ayoola as sudden and total as she portrays it? Is his behaviour as weak and desperate as it appears? He was probably the least successfully created character.
It did leave me both satisfied and wanting to know more, feeling like I’ve started to get to know someone and then had them move away.
A very well judged, balanced and controlled novel.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Date: 20th November 2018