Sister Act: On “My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Anyone who’s ever loved someone in this way can relate to her. The reader doesn’t need to concern herself with what kind of novel she’s reading. I peeked out of the apartment and confirmed that the landing was still clear. Characters tend to want to be boring, unlikable, or irrelevant. All this ratcheted, externalized tension and pathos makes it easy to imagine a film version of the novel, but to suggest that the story is merely an elaborate screenplay diminishes what Braithwaite has accomplished here. That’s where the reader’s empathy for Korede comes from. I cleaned it within an inch of its life. If you don’t notice Braithwaite’s skill as a wordsmith, well, yeah, that’s the point. These are moments fiction writers strive for. Together, they come to represent a new twist on modern sisterly dysfunction, an Elinor and Marianne Dashwood for the iPhone generation. Is there anything more beautiful than a man with a voice like an ocean?” If there is one surprise about the novel’s setting — the Nigerian city of Lagos — it’s how many Austenian traits the sisters and their family members share. I try remembering past episodes of Law & Order, search my mind for fictional or even real examples of characters or people escaping prosecution despite full knowledge of the offense. With the resourceful, devoted Korede, the gorgeous, oblivious Ayoola, and the handsome, available Tade, Braithwaite has all of the pieces in place for maximum conflict, and the story flows ineluctably down its most heartbreaking path (for Korede). Braithwaite skillfully has us ignore Korede’s crimes and focuses us instead on her value. Further, one could argue that with digital technology saturating our attentions and redefining our level of patience with words, it gets harder and harder for readers to open themselves to fictional characters. DECEMBER 19, 2018
WOE BE TO the novel protagonist that finds out a loved one is complicit in a serious crime. Almost no one is spared Ayoola’s carelessness and obliviousness, and Korede is the one left holding the secrets that could end this pain for everyone but her sister. Being a nurse, Korede seems tailor-made for the cleanup tasks her sister lays out for her. If they find a dot of blood, it will be because they bled while they were searching.” There’s a compelling intimacy to the writer’s style, a sense that Korede is taking you into her confidence, almost whispering her confessions into your ear. In a recent example, a friend of mine paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for her child to attend a tony college across the country only to have the kid fail to attend a final round of summer classes and miss out on his diploma. Orwell’s theory of the writing as a clean pane of glass comes to mind. From the beginning of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s darkly compelling My Sister, the Serial Killer, protagonist Korede suffers no illusion about her complicity. Her own sins are great — despite Ayoola outshining her even in this department — but the fact that she struggles to say them out loud is part of her appeal. The women’s mother rarely misses an opportunity to note what a perfect husband Tade would make. Happiness, for Korede, takes the form of Tade, a doctor at the hospital where she works. “They are not the already wilting roses with which Ayoola’s admirers usually grace our table — these flowers are bursting with life. This is expert storytelling that feels all the more painful because the scene is so earned — not just a way to make Korede cry, but to make the reader grieve for her as well. It doesn’t matter if any of the other characters would believe Korede’s allegations against Ayoola or not. I ignored her impatience. There are a million ways things can go wrong. The reader so deeply empathizes with the protagonist that she actively engages in the story. I was struck dumb. In a murder tale, comedy of manners, or virtually any other kind of longform story, the key is making the reader care about the characters. Can’t you throw him out of the house? Anyone who’s ever tried the form can attest that such engagement is hardly automatic. Tade is young, handsome, and clearly in want of a wife. Also reminiscent of Austen is Braithwaite’s sense for the specific detail that makes a character resonate, allowing for deep empathy. Ayoola has an annoying penchant for murdering her boyfriends, and the sisters’ relationship takes on the familiar dimensions of the reckless younger one who never pays for her actions, and the put-upon but ultimately responsible older one who takes care of the mess:
I soaked up the blood with a towel and wrung it out in the sink. She’s too busy being engaged to notice. Nowhere is she more astute in this regard than in dealing with the relative attractiveness of the sisters. While enjoying such a story, I typically try to massage the law in my head. Ayoola seems baffled by the concept of pain in the first place. The prose is as deft, personal, and economic as it is evocative. Worse, now that the main character knows about the crime, she might be in trouble too. I’m always amazed at the power love grants the beloved individual over the one doing the loving. She combines the comparatively lighter tropes of Jane Austen with a dark tale of murder, familial complication, and moral compromise, and thereby redefines both tropes for a new generation. I know many parents who seemingly sacrifice everything for their children. The plot of this tale, as in many murder mysteries, is the setup to push the protagonist to the limit; Braithwaite rarely misses the chance to pitch Korede’s sense of goodness, rightness, and desire for a happy life against the evil and wrong she knows her sister brings to the world. This is someone the protagonist cares deeply about, and that someone is in big trouble. Such legal math seems integral to the pleasurable reading of crime fiction. I try not to inhale the sickly sweet smell and I try not to cry.” Braithwaite wants Korede’s hands around that vase, smelling those flowers from her beloved — not for herself but for her beautiful, demented sister. Disown him? We just want, despite ourselves, for Korede to get past these pesky murders and find happiness. It takes a whole lot longer to dispose of a body than to dispose of a soul. Then I remembered the people I love, and I got it. Strangle him? Ayoola might be more aloof than her sister to the idea of marriage, but she definitely operates within the traditional heterosexual context of dating men, with all that entails. Short of the occasional murder or two, this is Sense and Sensibility all over again. I was tempted to pray, to beg that no door be opened as we journeyed from door to lift, but I am fairly certain that those are exactly the types of prayers He doesn’t answer. I repeated the motions until the floor was dry. Nowhere does he reveal his perfect husbandly tendencies better than when singing to placate scared children in his doctor’s office. Ayoola, of course, wins the race here, leaving Korede with the bad childhood memories of heartless boys:
They would draw pictures of girls and exaggerate their best or worst features and tack them on the school notice board for the world to see — at least until the teachers took the pictures down, tearing them from the pins, an act that left a little shred of paper stuck like a taunt. Ayoola’s Instragam account must have thousands of followers. Korede is thoughtful and diligent in every task, polite in company, faithful as a churchgoer to her nurse duties. Ayoola hovered, leaning on one foot and then the other. I hope to prove to myself that the protagonist’s knowledge of the crime and not coming forward about it is not, in fact, a crime itself. ¤
Art Edwards’s reviews have or will appear in The Believer, Kenyon Review, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Barrelhouse, The Collagist, JMWW, Entropy, and The Rumpus, among others. When Tade sends Ayoola a bouquet of orchids, the younger sister texts that she prefers roses, and is conveniently missing the next time a delivery person comes to the door. Korede is very interested in marriage, especially to Tade. The reader certainly gets it. “I cleaned that car. That’s what makes Braithwaite’s accomplishment so special. Korede is the sister whose pain never washes away, despite her incessant scrubbing. At such a moment, a wonderful gap opens in both the character and reader. Considering her sister’s propensity for killing her gentleman callers, Korede has many compelling reasons to make sure Tade knows the score about Ayoola. “It doesn’t matter that he sings ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ We still have goosebumps. Ayoola is the unfortunate impetus bringing many of Korede’s noble traits to the fore. The novel starts with her sister Alooya’s third murder, and Korede’s efficiency in cleanup and coverup reveals not only her resourcefulness but also her culpability:
Ayoola darted to the lift, pressed the button, ran back to us and lifted Femi’s shoulders once more.