author Oyinkan Braithwaite

Booker 2019: My Sister the Serial Killer

3rd September 2019

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Doubleday, 2018

Reviewed by Claire Steele

Debut novelist Oyinkan Braithwaite structures her novel as a series of explosive journal entries that take us backwards and forwards in time in an exploration of morality and loyalty. The novel starts with

‘WORDS

Ayoola summons me with those words – Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again.’

It’s a banging opening, but unfortunately the reader is then required to suspend disbelief as to why Ayoola, captivatingly beautiful, slightly built and grievously entitled, would a) have the strength to kill a series of more or less muscular lovers and b) the motivation. But, for the moment, let’s set those considerations aside: more interesting to Braithwaite is the relationship between the sisters, and the morally vexatious question of how far someone might go for kinship. Attendant to this, she also considers the similarly fractious relationships between abuse and desire, beauty and violence. All this is powerful material. This is a novel which expresses the heart-sickening persistence of love, hope and superhuman support in the face of Ayoola’s cavalier disinterest in the lives of others.

Family history and Nigerian society emerge equally via a series of bemused observations, memorial fragments, a selection of random particles as seemingly disconnected as the chapter titles: Words, Bleach, Flaw, Traffic, Father. The lack of formal unity is part of the point. Things don’t have to make sense. Violence, Braithwaite suggests is systemic, chaotic, unrelated and impervious to criticism. Violence is performative. It is too fast for prose. Braithwaite uses language as a deliberately blunt instrument, but it can sometimes be hard to spot where it is adventurous, such as in the ways in which the dead impose themselves upon the living.

The body of the victim of the third murder, the one referred to in the opening lines, is disposed of into the river, and surfaces periodically in Korede’s imagination. It also surfaces in the fragments of poetry Femi wrote in his blog while he was still dating Ayoola. His words have an afterlife. There’s still mileage left in sadness and subtlety, even when irony exposes a bourgeois sensibility:

‘How long am I meant to post boring, sad stuff?’ ... ‘You don’t have to post at all.’ … ‘How long, though?’ … ‘A year, I guess’ … ‘You must be kidding me.’

An award-winning slam poet, Braithwaite’s style is essentially contemporary: it is concerned with surface, rhythm, a quick-fire, quasi-comic, social commentary. The narrative is well flavoured with spoken idiom, little Nigerian peppercorns-o which invite us to succumb to the intimacies of this language of the home, of the street. It feels both welcoming and strange. Fundamentally, slam poetry is not interested in the finer aesthetic concerns of linguistic artistry or surprise. It is interested in rhetoric, in power.

If the fragments that jostle for their place in this novel don’t exactly cohere, it’s because their relationship is as much to do with the energy and rhythm as it is to do with story. That’s interesting, and it makes us consider what it is that we expect of a ‘murder mystery’ or a ‘thriller’. But this facility does come at a price to the narrative strengths of the novel. The story of the sisters’ relationship lacks psychological depth; it lacks development, it lacks, tension, adrenaline, peril. This feels irremediably inconsistent with the expectations set up by the title of the novel. Maybe it is because Braithwaite undercuts any righteous poetic anger with sardonic humour. Maybe it is because – for all her diligence with bleach to erase her sister’s crimes – Korede is passive, evasive, unwilling to step up and reach for a narrative prize that would justify the set-up: Korede’s voice is too slow to deliver the punch. The voice of slam poetry is the voice of dissonance, a voice we have come to associate with ‘authentic’ experience and disaffection. There should be a way of harnessing this energy to provide some formalistic endorsement of the concerns of the novel. But, in Korede, the voice is too muffled to be a clarion call. In the end the novel seems to have flinched away from the potentially thrilling demands of its central investigation, and lost itself in exactly the casual belief in its own goodness that typifies Ayoola’s unconvincing sing-song treachery.

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