Welcome to “Lately in Literature with Leyla.” I will be reviewing new book releases to keep you updated on some of the best contemporary fiction. Join me to pick up your next read! In honor of Black History Month, I chose a novel from Nigerian British author Oyinkan Braithwaite. Several of Braithwaite’s novels are set in Lagos, where Braithwaite was born, and capture the culture as well as the troubles of the large city.
Content warning: this article contains references to child abuse.
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s “My Sister, The Serial Killer” was such a page turner that I read it in one sitting. The 226-page novel tells the story of two sisters: Korede, a shy nurse who does not stand out in a crowd, and Ayoola, a young, outgoing and charming … murderer.
Braithwaite’s debut novel and Man Booker Prize winner depicts Korede’s unwavering loyalty to Ayoola as she disposes of the blood and carcasses of her sister’s murdered boyfriends, literally cleaning up the messes Ayoola leaves behind. As the tension increases, Korede soon finds herself in a moral dilemma, doubting whether she should continue to protect her sister or make sure she is stopped. Are Ayoola’s killings really out of self-defense? Is Korede accountable for the danger the people of Lagos face if she keeps covering for Ayoola, or is she bound by blood to protect her sister above all else?
Inspired by her own experience, Braithwaite also writes about the problem of keeping up appearances in Lagos. This is reflected in Korede’s constant struggle to make sure her sister looks okay to the public eye and can be married off like their mother wishes, despite the bodies she leaves behind. This storyline also highlights gender discrimination, as it is the women of Lagos who bear the responsibility of preparing for marriage and keeping up appearances to appeal to men of a higher socioeconomic class.
Braithwaite engages the reader with setting as much as story. Nigerian cultural foods and dresses stand out, but Braithwaite also aims to depict the corruption of police in the busy city of Lagos. The police’s lack of concern with the murders throughout the book shows the inefficiency of the police force in Lagos and portrays how it allows crimes as vicious as Ayoola’s to take place without legal ramifications. Moreover, Braithwaite criticizes colorism in Nigeria, a problem rooted in the country’s colonialist history, by pointing out how Ayoola’s lighter skin is favored over Korede’s dark skin despite their identical ethnicity.
Braithwaite’s inspiration for the novel was a poem she wrote on female black widow spiders, which eat the male after they mate. Despite this wicked incentive for the manipulative and charming character of Ayoola and several scenes of rubbing bleach, I wouldn’t label “My Sister, The Serial Killer” as thriller or crime. The short chapters really do keep you on the edge of your seat, and Korede’s impassive narrative voice inspired by “Wuthering Heights” is quite eerie. However, Braithwaite said she had no genre in mind when she started her book.
In fact, there is a heavier focus on the types of relationships people form with one another than on the suspense of the murders.
“We are hardwired to protect and remain loyal to the people we love,” says Korede. Here, Braithwaite describes the foundational idea behind the strongest relationship in the book — that of the two sisters. Beyond sisterhood, Braithwaite explores the relationship between father and daughter. Braithwaite tells, with bits from Korede’s memory, of the character’s father physically abusing her as a child. She questions the role this familial trauma plays in the sisters’ lives by making Ayoola’s murder weapon the knife that she stole from her father.
“Is it in the blood? But his blood is my blood and my blood is hers,” Korede ponders.
The novel also examines the relationship of mother and daughter. The sisters’ mother favors Ayoola because of her beauty while Korede constantly takes blame for her sister’s mistakes. We see Korede’s womanhood being threatened indirectly as her physical appearance is belittled by her mother.
Ayoola’s relationships with her boyfriends are another example of how the book delves into interpersonal relationships. Men who are stronger, taller, older and more reputable than Ayoola simultaneously threaten her with physical violence and write her love poems. Although Braithwaite does not necessarily show all of the boyfriends being violent, there is an unsettling energy in the power dynamics between them and Ayoola. This type of relationship is completely unlike the sisterly love rooted in loyalty and protection. The relationships raise questions about whether these men really love the beautiful Ayoola, or if this is even love at all.
Whether the book is describing these interpersonal relationships or those of a corrupt police force and citizens, a nurse and her patient in a coma or Korede and the dead men she feels pity for, it continues to question why people love the way they love and interact with each other the way they do.
“All those smiling parents and their newborns? Murderers and victims. Every one of them. The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.”
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.