Helping Out Family Is Taken to Extremes in ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’

Posted November 14, 2018 6:57 p.m. EST

It’s not that Ayoola meant to kill quite so many men. She’s not a monster, she’d insist. Things just have a way of getting out of hand. Frankly, it would be cruel to blame her. Maybe you’re the monster?

Ayoola — lovely, dopey, incorrigibly murderous — is the chaos at the heart of “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” a much-anticipated first novel from the Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. It’s Lagos noir — pulpy, peppery and sinister, served up in a comic deadpan courtesy of the narrator, Ayoola’s horrified sister Korede.

Korede, a nurse, is as unprepossessing as her sister is beautiful, and as loyal as they come. She’s always on hand to discreetly dispose of a body or to help concoct an alibi — even as she’s baffled by her sister’s motives. Ayoola claims the murders are in self-defense, but she never seems hurt or even terribly rattled. (And why is she wandering around with a 9-inch knife, anyway?)

“I found myself typing ‘serial killer’ into the Google search box at 3 a.m.,” Korede says. In one desperate moment she even wonders if the weapon could be to blame: “I cannot imagine her resorting to stabbing if that particular knife were not in her hand; almost as if it were the knife and not her that was doing the killing. But then, is that so hard to believe? Who is to say that an object does not come with its own agenda? Or that the collective agenda of its previous owners does not direct its purpose still?”

That knife once belonged to their father, a vicious man who died in an accident (or was it?). Their mother is now a blurry creature, lost in an Ambien-induced stupor. The sisters only have each other. Korede’s one confidant is a comatose patient to whom she confesses everything — her consuming crush on a doctor at the hospital, and the truth of her sister’s compulsion.

The book begins in the thick of this insanity. So many intriguing paths to trouble fan out in front of the characters: Did Korede really manage to scrub all the blood out of the trunk of her car? What will happen once her crush meets her irresistible sister? Will Korede be forced to take a side?

The chapters are brisk — a page or two long, with titles like “Bleach,” “Body,” “Stain.” The narration is clean and efficient; the characters lightly sketched. Psychologizing is kept to a minimum. There are a few tiresome genre tropes — an annoying reliance on ellipses to convey mood, and subtext that comes emblazoned in neon. (“I head to the supply cabinet and grab a set of wipes. If only I could wipe away all our memories with it.”) But this book is, above all, built to move, to hurtle forward — and it does so, dizzyingly.

There’s a seditious pleasure in its momentum. At a time when there are such wholesome and dull claims on fiction — on its duty to ennoble or train us in empathy — there’s a relief in encountering a novel faithful to art’s first imperative: to catch and keep our attention.

Every now and again, however, the aperture widens. The story becomes larger. Cracks emerge in Korede’s facade of strenuous calm. She turns jealous when Ayoola receives flowers: “I console myself with the knowledge that even the most beautiful flowers wither and die.” Her self-loathing grows darker. “There never seemed to be much point in masking my imperfections,” she says of putting on makeup. “It’s as futile as using air freshener when you leave the toilet.”

Ayoola’s vivid crimes are the center of the novel, but the margins are crammed with stories of routine humiliation and entitlement, everyday violence — the world that has produced these women. Braithwaite explores the accident of beauty, and its command; how women’s faces can write their fates. And she does her most artful work in conjuring the corruption and ambient menace of Lagos, as Korede perceives it.

At a traffic stop, a policeman coaxes a bribe out of her. He tries to get into the car; he lazily threatens her. She frantically tries to manage the situation: “Educated women anger men of his ilk, and so I try to adopt broken English.” Finally, he takes her money, and she drives on. It’s a situation she has endured many times before. It still terrifies. And it will happen again.

One of Ayoola’s boyfriends confronts Korede at one point. “There’s something wrong with her,” he says. “But you? What’s your excuse?” This scorpion-tailed little thriller leaves a response, and a sting, you will remember.

Publication Notes:

‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’

By Oyinkan Braithwaite

226 pages. Doubleday. $22.95.