Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is, as the title suggests, a tale of two sisters. Korede, our narrator, is a senior nurse in a Lagos hospital, the sort of person who takes charge in a crisis and is handy with a bottle of bleach. Her sister, Ayoola, beautiful and self-absorbed, is in the unfortunate habit of murdering her boyfriends. Korede’s the one who gets to clean up after her – until her crush Tade takes a shine to Ayoola.
What makes this taut, slim thriller so much more than just a taut, slim thriller is the fact that we have very little insight into Ayoola’s motives: the story’s narrated entirely from Korede’s point of view. Ayoola claims that her boyfriends threaten her with violence, and she reacts in self-defence, but the narrative gives us plenty of room to doubt her – for example, the fact that Korede has to remind her not to be cheerful on Instagram the day after one of her murders. (She’s supposed to be a grieving girlfriend, after all.)
And what about Korede, too? What does it say about her that she’s willing to cover up Ayoola’s murders, to clean up her little sister’s messes? Braithwaite nails the sibling dynamic here: Korede’s exasperation at her sister’s self-absorbed vanity, the way everything goes her way without her even noticing – as an older sister, I feel that. (Note: my younger sister is not, of course, a serial killer.) And yet, in the end, Korede chooses her frustrating sister over everyone else – yes.
Korede and Ayoola are both profoundly damaged people, it turns out: damaged by an abusive father who punished the girls’ expressions of individuality while being willing to trade them away as wives to strengthen his business contacts. The novel opens as Ayoola, Korede and their mother prepare to mark the tenth anniversary of his death in a celebration of his life and character and everything he did for his family – because it’s easier to lie to the wider family; because, ultimately, their experience as women doesn’t matter to anyone else. That’s really the kernel of My Sister, the Serial Killer: the trap of being a woman in a world where male figures of authority can’t be trusted (and there are no female figures of authority). In Ayoola’s eyes, every man she dates sees only her beauty, not her personhood, and so (the text implies) she’s justified in treating them likewise. You can’t murder an object, after all. It’s not clear that she’s wrong, either.
I mean: Ayoola is a horrifying character. She’s not, like, a feminist icon for the ages. She literally can’t stop murdering people. Korede is horrifying, too, in her way, for her quiet enabling of her sister. They are trapped in circumstance and in a culture that doesn’t recognise women’s humanity, though: it’s hard to see how any of the novel’s events could have gone any other way, given what both of these women are and what they have undergone. This is a novel about two sisters closing ranks against the world; and if they are horrifying, then how much more so is the culture that made them what they are?