- - Thursday, November 8, 2018



By Oyinkan Braithwaite

Doubleday, $22.95, 240 pages

“My Sister The Serial Killer” has to be the best title of any novel of 2018 — maybe of any novel of the decade.

It’s pseudo-confessional, suggesting voyeuristic insights into the lives of siblings of serial killers. It’s also blandly deadpan, putting on the back foot anyone so naive as to think that serial killing is an undesirable habit in a sister.

The sisters at the heart of the story are Korede and Ayoola, and on the surface they couldn’t be more different — at least according to Korede, who tells their tale.

She is a nurse: Competent and meticulous both at work and at home. Ayoola designs clothes and goes out with men. Korede is nearly six foot, and she makes a point of telling us that she is far from good looking. Tade, the doctor she dotes on, respects her work skills, but he never sees her romantic or marital potential, even though she tries to tempt him with home-made lunches and extreme office tidying. In contrast, Ayoola is tiny and sensationally pretty so she has no trouble finding boyfriends. Of course, since she often feels she has to kill them, new ones are always useful.

The killings begin at the beginning. “Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him. I had hoped to hear those words never again.” That’s the whole first chapter, and in a novel of short chapters it’s the shortest. But just as this chapter impels the reader forward, so does each of the others, and so does Korede.

“On their one-month anniversary, she stabbed him in the bathroom of his apartment. She didn’t mean to, of course.” Korede reflects. In fact, she knows better. She’s the one who cleaned up the blood after Ayoola stabbed him. She’s the one who came up with the plan to dump him in the lagoon.

But Femi — the victim — was Ayoola’s third, and as Korede tells Muhtar, a patient in a prolonged coma and therefore presumably not able to hear her, “Three and they label you a serial killer.” She looked it up on Google, so she knows.

Of course, Korede, the responsible sister remonstrates with naughty Ayoola. She asks for Ayoola’s knife so she can throw it in the lagoon after Femi, but Ayoola claims she must keep it because it is all she has left of their dead father. “Perhaps if it were someone else at the receiving end of this show of sentimentality, her words would hold some weight,” reflects Korede. “But she cannot fool me. It is a mystery how much feeling Ayoola is even capable of.”

Then why is she killing boyfriends? And why is Korede enabling her by cleaning up the mess, and disposing of bodies in the lagoon? Light eventually shines on this mystery, and it also illumines the relationship between the sisters, and why they are the way they are.

This is Oyinkan Braithwaite’s first novel, though she has published numerous short stories, mostly in her native Nigeria. Here the brief chapters and the intense focus on a small group of characters reflect that experience as a writer of short fiction. But her narrative pacing is that of a novelist of promise. Each short chapter tempts the reader on to the next. Often it reveals little except Ayoola scrolling around on her smartphone or ditzing about in ways that amuse her and us but infuriate Korede.

But gradually seemingly minor events turn out to be important, either revealing something of the sisters’ childhoods, or showing that while Korede has a doggy devotion to Ayoola, the younger Ayoola has the cat’s ability to show up seemingly out of nowhere, just when good-girl bossy sister Korede needs her.

The only other person who is on Korede’s side is Muhtar, who eventually emerges from his coma. His shrewish wife is less than happy at this turn of events, and the picture the author sketches of his family life adds complexity to the central account of the sisters and the household where they live with their mother. The house is in a middle-class area of Lagos, and one of the pleasures of the novel is the author’s descriptions of the city, tangled in traffic and throbbing with energy.

She also effectively evokes Muhtar and Tade, the two men on the edge of Korede’s life, and Ayoola jumps off the pages, smartphone in hand, with all the verve of the femme fatale. The indolent and sassy Yinka is also deftly sketched, though other characters, including the sisters’ mother and aunt, and Korede’s colleagues are less effective because they are one-dimensional. Nonetheless, Korede and Ayoola are worth spending time with, and “My Sister The Serial Killer” is always intriguing, often amusing, and in the end, affecting too.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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