Hazel McHaffie

Christian faith

My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, The Serial Killer is not a book I would have been drawn to normally, but having listened to the author Oyinksan Braithwaite speaking at the Hay Book Festival back in June, I was intrigued enough to order it immediately. And I read it in a sitting. It’s a very slim volume so no credit to me. (What’s hard to believe is that it’s taken me five months to post a comment about it!)

The plot is perfectly summarised on the back cover:
When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in ‘self-defence’ and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other …

Both sisters are vividly captured. The younger one, Ayoola, a clothing designer, is staggeringly beautiful, self-centred, inconsiderate, reckless, entirely without scruples. She begins her murderous career at the age of 17.
Ayoola lives in a world where things must always go her way. It’s a law as certain as the law of gravity.
Her mother can see no wrong in her and always blames Korede for anything untoward.
That’s how it has always been. Ayoola would break a glass, and I would receive the blame for giving her the drink. Ayoola would fail a class, and I would be blamed for not coaching her. Ayoola would take an apple and leave the store without paying for it, and I would be blamed for letting her go hungry…. I am the older sister – I am responsible for Ayoola.
Ayoola uses men without pity.

Korede herself – our narrator – on the other hand, is plain, self-deprecating, honest, conscientious, loyal, caring, a nurse. Her essential loneliness is poignantly conveyed by her habit of slipping into a ward to confide in a comatose patient. Oh, and she’s obsessive about cleanliness too.
The cabinet under the sink is filled with everything required to tackle dirt and disease – gloves, bleach, disinfectant wipes, disinfectant spray, sponge, toilet bowl cleaner, all-purpose cleaner, multi-surface cleaner, bowl brush plunger and caddy, and odor-shield trash bags.
All perfect for covering up a bloody murder … or three. Her sense of responsibility drives her to do just that, and to create alternative scenarios, lying repeatedly to protect her sister. But Korede is more haunted by her sister’s crimes than Ayoola is.

These sisters are at the heart of the novel, and it’s their love for each other than is tested to its limits. The brutal father, the prejudiced mother, the nurses, the cleaners, the doctor, the unconscious patient, the relatives, the third mainland bridge lagoon¬† … all leave their mark, colour in another corner of the jigsaw, shape their destiny, provide the backdrop for what happens. But it’s the sisters who hold centre stage.

And then a fourth boyfriend dies – this time supposedly of food poisoning/drug overdose. Korede is promoted to head nurse. The comatose patient wakes up … whoops! Aytoola tries one more time … and suddenly sisterly love is stretched in an entirely different direction.

The book has been hailed as a literary sensation, and was even longlisted for the Booker Prize 2019. I can see why. Extremely short chapters give the plot pace; occasional dialectic expressions anchor it to place; crisp dialogue makes the language sing; sparse prose tells the story with deft strokes. Compulsive reading.

Particularly fascinating to me, on a personal level, was hearing the author, herself a church goer, felt some disquiet about writing such a ‘godless’¬† book, and the reaction of her fellow Christians. Her family have misgivings too, her father telling her, ‘I don’t think they should be putting darkness back into the world. You need to own your responsibility as a creator.’ Braithwaite is exercised by the tension between her faith and the moral ambiguity of her fiction, but she takes comfort from the knowledge that readers laugh at her humour, and by that means she is bringing some joy into the world. I too empathise with her ambivalence; I too justify the fiction by the purpose it serves; just not in quite the same way.

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