February 24, 2019


Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is a wickedly dark and audacious novel about the limits you would go to, to protect your family. This propulsive debut by the Nigerian author launches at breakneck speed and has been hailed as “an ideal book for the present moment” because of its portrayal of real but unlikeable women taking revenge on abusive men in their lives.

The story centres on two sisters: Ayoola is the quintessential femme fatale who has a proclivity for murdering her boyfriends while Korede is the big sister who has been relegated to cleaning up the messes created by her drop-dead gorgeous younger sibling. Interestingly, Braithwaite got the inspiration for the plot from the popular belief that the female black widow spider eats the male after mating — if she is hungry.

The novel begins with these explosive lines: “Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.”

A morbidly funny modern noir combines family saga, quirky crime thriller and dark comedy, but is also a sharply incisive look at the legacy of abuse

Korede arrives at the scene and gets down to business with her rubber gloves and bleach to remove all traces of blood and crime. While Korede is slaving away trying to remove all traces of her sister’s felony, Ayoola’s blasé attitude to the whole situation is borderline funny. When Korede tries to later stop her from posting random photos on Snapchat as she is supposed to be mourning her dead boyfriend, Ayoola complains, “How long am I meant to post boring, sad stuff?”

Even though this is a debut, Braithwaite dexterously tackles the pitch of the narration, taking the melodramatic scene of the sisters disposing off a body and seamlessly transitioning into their day-to-day lives that are rife with mundane issues. And while occasionally the plot has the tendency to get kitschy or too far-fetched to be emotionally involving, the writer shrewdly gives us a peek into the family history which provides us with a deeper understanding of the base of Ayoola’s insecurity and Korede’s paranoia. An example is how the two women’s mother — as does everybody else — treats Ayoola as the cynosure of her eyes which rubs Korede, who has been given the short end of the gene pool stick, the wrong way.

Straitlaced and uptight, Korede has been covering her sister’s back since growing up, while trying to save Ayoola from their father’s bouts of rage. She also has a peculiar habit of cleaning fanatically and, while some might chalk it up to obsessive compulsive disorder, readers are given glimpses of the source of her deep-rooted motivations for cleaning up: “I swipe my finger across the lid, making a line in the dust. My mother sighs and walks away, because she knows I won’t be able to rest until there is not a speck of dust left on the piano’s surface. I head to the supply cabinet and grab a set of wipes. If only I could wipe away all our memories with it.”

For the first time in my adult existence, I wish he was here. He would know what to do. He would be in control, every step of the way. He wouldn’t allow his daughter’s grievous error to ruin his reputation — he would have had this whole matter swept under the rug weeks ago. But then it is doubtful Ayoola would have engaged in these activities had he been alive. The only form of retribution she ever feared was the one that came from him. — Excerpt from the book

Now a nurse in a hospital in Lagos, Korede is pretty stoic and reticent. Her sole confidant is one of her patients in a coma to whom she unloads her secrets. Things stay under the carpet until one day, the comatose patient miraculously awakens, leading Korede to panic about what he remembers and whether he will keep her secrets.

Braithwaite strikes the right balance by putting together the key elements of a family saga, a quirky crime thriller and a dark comedy. The deadpan humour keeps the writing from getting morose: “Maybe she is reaching out because she has sent another man to his grave prematurely, says Korede, noticing a missed call from her sister. Or maybe she wants to know if I can buy eggs on the way home. Either way, I’m not picking up.”

It is said that siblings are people you love, but do not like. This book is an epitome of that emotion where both sisters frequently push each other’s buttons but, when push comes to shove, they are fiercely protective of each other, out of pure primal instinct.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is not a glib slashfest, which it might appear initially. It is a sharply incisive look at the legacy of abuse and its effects on a person’s psyche. Lagos, portrayed as a place teeming with corrupt police and held together by rigid family norms and superstitious beliefs, is nimbly woven in the storyline. This sly debut is an enthralling depiction of sibling rivalry, the inheritance of violence and of patriarchal society.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic

My Sister, the Serial Killer
By Oyinkan Braithwaite
Atlantic Books, UK
ISBN: 978-1786495976

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 24th, 2019