Book Review

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

great playful (tho violent!) contemporary Nigerian novel

I’ve been feeling a bit glum the last few days. New York, I suppose, can do that to a person. I don’t mean that New York makes a person sad, I mean leaving it does.

I saw people, I went out, I had drinks, I walked those eerily familiar streets, I did a reading, I drank some lovely wine, I bought some exciting books, I did karaoke, I had a good time. In the journey to and from (and the tiny bit of downtime during that trip), I read – what I can only describe as – an abrasively mediocre novel. This is a problem, because the connection between my psychological state and the quality of the book I’m reading is dangerously linked. Dangerously

Finishing Knausgaard was emotionally significant. Game of Thrones ending was emotionally significant. I watched the first season of Big Little Lies and I think it’s myriad unhappy affluent relationships painfully evoked my younger, unhappier, much more glamorous days.

I’m not working as much as I should be. I’m not writing or submitting the writing I’ve done as much as I should be. I’m exercising, walking my dog and cooking elaborate [increasingly dairy-free] meals. I still haven’t shaken off the weight gain from last year’s predominantly cheese and cava diet, but I don’t know why I’m so preoccupied about it. Weight gain is a standard side effect of the heavy dose of SSRIs I’ve now been on for almost two years. I’m crying and having lots of panic attacks again, though. My lover is worrying about me. These are all concerning signs. So I had to make sure that the next book I read wasn’t atrocious!!! Ha ha ha.

I scouted through my pile of books and selected this 2017 Nigerian novel by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Though it wasn’t displayed so when I bought it, I have recently seen My Sister, The Serial Killer in the YA section of bookstores. Luckily for me (because it’s great), I noticed the novel in a staff picks display many months ago, but had I first seen it pointedly aimed at teens, I would have – snobbishly – ignored it. It would have been my loss.

As the title suggests, the protagonist’s sister is a serial killer. The killer is Alooya, beautiful and charming and – at the start of the novel – fresh from killing her third man. Her older sister, Korede, has already resigned herself to cleaning up her sister’s messes, which she’s been doing since their affluent – but corrupt – father died ten years before. Her younger sister is messy and doesn’t have great luck with men. Well, she doesn’t have great luck with ending a relationship by any method other than… murder.

Korede is a nurse, working at a busy hospital and pining for an unmarried doctor who one day – oh no – meets Alooya. Like most men, he is instantly charmed, but unlike most men, the only person who knows Alooya’s secret violent streak happens to have a vested interest in keeping this man alive…

What follows is an engaging, often funny, sometimes scary, exploration of life as a young, single woman in contemporary Lagos. There is lots about snobbery and sexuality, about sexism and education and corruption, about class and poverty and violence, about social media, the ways to fake grief and the risks of confiding secrets to a stranger in a coma.

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s writing is clear, direct and evocative. She occasionally uses some Yoruba and vernacular English in dialogue, but it is through her descriptions and characterisation that this huge city is able to be seen so plain. Braithwaite plays with genre conventions, too: of course this isn’t the first novel about a sympathetic serial killer, nor is it the first novel about a sympathetic female serial killer, but through its use of female millennial experience in Lagos as the underpinnings for a thriller it is inarguably an original, engaging and powerful work.

My Sister, The Serial Killer isn’t just a thriller in a non-Scandinavian setting, it’s a richly emotive piece of writing that is about family and loyalty and familial – as well as romantic – love. Yes, there are murders in it that are committed by a beautiful young woman, but it’s not titillating sexploitation, it is a witty, intelligent, parable about the realities of life in a huge city that is in the midst of technological flux, accompanied by a pacy, pulpy plot that ties it all together.

Braithwaite captures youth and internet culture in a realistic way. It is perhaps the use of Snapchat and Instagram throughout that led it to be marketed towards the generation below mine, but it’s certainly no loss to anyone if more people read this cracking, short novel that does exactly what it sets out to do.

You’ll enjoy it, whoever you are.

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