Hazel McHaffie

family loyalty

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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Controversy writ large

News flash: ‘Reports of the death of the printed book have been greatly exaggerated.’ A recent study by the Publishers Association has shown that sales of printed versions are rising, and digital sales falling – the first time since e-readers were invented. Interesting. Watch this space, as they say.

But where am I with my own shelves of books …?

Ahah, yes: Julie Myerson has risen to the top of my pile. Author, critic, columnist, Myerson is no stranger to controversy. A few years ago she wrote a supposedly anonymous column in the Guardian called Living with Teenagers, which was later taken off the website in 2009 because the family were identified and one of her children was ridiculed at school. She’s also written about her father’s unsavoury side and her parents’ divorce. She’s revealed her own ‘breakdown’. But most notably, her very public eviction of her eldest child from the family home in 2009 caught the headlines. I remember it well – reviews of the book (The Lost Child), and her appearances on chat shows.

Reaction was mixed; admiration for her courage and honesty, criticism for her disloyalty and avarice (see for example). What exactly was going on behind the scenes here, I wondered? What would prompt a mother to expose her child in this way, turn their family story into a book, do so many interviews, make money out of their tragedy? What was her motivation? I felt I should make up my own mind on the evidence available.

Myerson books

Well, it’s taken me till now to read the book, now when my writerly brain is grappling with the whole issue or parent/child relationships. To give me context and perspective, I revisited her novel, Laura Blundy (which I read some years ago), and I also bought two of her other novels: The Quickening and Something Might Happen.

Overall impression? Her writing is quite dark with supernatural overtones. I confess I’m not a huge fan of her style. Too many. Short. Ungrammatical. Split up sentences. Like this. Can become annoying. And interrupt flow. The absence of speech marks requires extra effort. And dotting in and out of second person narration is an affectation that I find confusing and irritating. But I persevered nonetheless. And the verdict?

The Lost Child
The Lost Child
The most controversial book and the only non-fiction one of the three. It’s a curious mix of her own personal experience as the child of divorced parents and a mother in trouble, and the parallel story of her discovery of Mary Yelloly, a nineteen century girl who died at the age of 21 in 1838 leaving behind a touching legacy.

The historical research is fine but unexceptional. It’s the writer-as-mother theme that grabs my attention, with her eldest child, Jake, taking drugs, and by the age of 17, constantly truanting from school, out of control at home, lying, stealing, even physically violent with his parents. Ultimata are issued: behave or leave.
‘But we reach a point where it’s him or us. Him or this family …
And every day is given over to dealing with the wreckage. All the joy and pleasure of normal family life has been replaced with dull-eyed damage control.’

Myerson begs the school to impose boundaries; expel him. In the end she applies the ‘terrible‘ last resort herself: eviction from the family home; a change of locks on the doors.

Some reviewers have linked the two main threads by contrasting the Victorian scourge of consumption which decimated the Yelloly family, with the modern plague of drugs ruining the lives of the Myersons. Others parallel the loss of the nineteenth century mother with that of the twenty-first century one. Whatever, for me it’s the betrayal of Jake that overrides any other consideration of merit or otherwise. Does it really help raise awareness of the dangers of drugs to lay bare a ‘celebrity’s’ family troubles? Or offer consolation to other parents in trouble? I’m not convinced the price is worth paying. Added to that, doubts have been cast on the veracity of some of the personal story as well. I have no means of verifying this point either way. But I’m left troubled.

As for Myerson’s other books, they helped me to get a sense of her style and her predilections, and better to understand the ghosts and hints of the supernatural which haunt her writing generally. For the purposes of this blog, a quick summary of the fiction.

The Quickening
The Quickening
A honeymoon in the Caribbean: a holiday on an island paradise with the brand new husband, Dan, whom she adores – what’s not to like? But for newly pregnant Rachel the dream soon turns into a nightmare. Mysterious things keep happening. Strange and sinister people appear and vanish. A murderer strikes. Dan dismisses her fears as dreams, but who exactly is this man who married her with such haste after the death of her father? What secrets from his past are haunting them on this idyllic island of Antigua? The tension mounts as she struggles to avoid the fate she feels closing in on her; and the author certainly kept me wondering right up to the final plot twist.

Something might Happen
Something Might HappenIt’s all there – the gruesome murder, a trophy taken, the clues, the false trails, the search for the perpetrator, suspicion, a persistent family liaison officer – all the hallmarks of the classic whodunnit. But Myerson’s real preoccupation is not with solving the crime, but rather with the sheer messiness of grief. Mum of four, Tess, struggles to sort out her complex feelings for the murdered woman’s husband, for her own husband, for the liaison officer – but I’m afraid her behaviour stretched my credulity a step too far. However the erosion of trust within the community and the secret fears of the children are a salutary reminder that grief can threaten security and ripple out in hidden ways.

Interesting reads. Not in my top fifty favourites.

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