Why she kills her boyfriends

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Claire Ho­p­ley Claire Ho­p­ley is a writer and ed­i­tor in Amherst, Mas­sachusetts.


By Oyinkan Braith­waite

Dou­ble­day, $22.95, 240 pages

“My Sis­ter The Se­rial Killer” has to be the best ti­tle of any novel of 2018 — maybe of any novel of the decade. It’s pseudo-con­fes­sional, sug­gest­ing voyeuris­tic in­sights into the lives of sib­lings of se­rial killers. It’s also blandly dead­pan, putting on the back foot any­one so naive as to think that se­rial killing is an un­de­sir­able habit in a sis­ter.

The sis­ters at the heart of the story are Korede and Ay­oola, and on the sur­face they couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent — at least ac­cord­ing to Korede, who tells their tale.

She is a nurse: Com­pe­tent and metic­u­lous both at work and at home. Ay­oola de­signs clothes and goes out with men. Korede is nearly six foot, and she makes a point of telling us that she is far from good look­ing. Tade, the doc­tor she dotes on, re­spects her work skills, but he never sees her ro­man­tic or mar­i­tal po­ten­tial, even though she tries to tempt him with home-made lunches and ex­treme of­fice tidy­ing. In con­trast, Ay­oola is tiny and sen­sa­tion­ally pretty so she has no trou­ble find­ing boyfriends. Of course, since she of­ten feels she has to kill them, new ones are al­ways use­ful.

The killings be­gin at the be­gin­ning. “Ay­oola sum­mons me with these words — Korede, I killed him. I had hoped to hear those words never again.” That’s the whole first chap­ter, and in a novel of short chap­ters it’s the short­est. But just as this chap­ter im­pels the reader for­ward, so does each of the oth­ers, and so does Korede.

“On their one-month an­niver­sary, she stabbed him in the bath­room of his apart­ment. She didn’t mean to, of course.” Korede re­flects. In fact, she knows bet­ter. She’s the one who cleaned up the blood af­ter Ay­oola stabbed him. She’s the one who came up with the plan to dump him in the lagoon.

But Femi — the vic­tim — was Ay­oola’s third, and as Korede tells Muhtar, a pa­tient in a pro­longed coma and there­fore pre­sum­ably not able to hear her, “Three and they la­bel you a se­rial killer.” She looked it up on Google, so she knows.

Of course, Korede, the re­spon­si­ble sis­ter re­mon­strates with naughty Ay­oola. She asks for Ay­oola’s knife so she can throw it in the lagoon af­ter Femi, but Ay­oola claims she must keep it be­cause it is all she has left of their dead father. “Per­haps if it were some­one else at the re­ceiv­ing end of this show of sen­ti­men­tal­ity, her words would hold some weight,” re­flects Korede. “But she can­not fool me. It is a mys­tery how much feel­ing Ay­oola is even ca­pa­ble of.”

Then why is she killing boyfriends? And why is Korede en­abling her by clean­ing up the mess, and dis­pos­ing of bod­ies in the lagoon? Light even­tu­ally shines on this mys­tery, and it also il­lu­mines the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the sis­ters, and why they are the way they are.

This is Oyinkan Braith­waite’s first novel, though she has pub­lished nu­mer­ous short sto­ries, mostly in her na­tive Nige­ria. Here the brief chap­ters and the in­tense fo­cus on a small group of char­ac­ters re­flect that ex­pe­ri­ence as a writer of short fic­tion. But her nar­ra­tive pac­ing is that of a nov­el­ist of prom­ise. Each short chap­ter tempts the reader on to the next. Of­ten it re­veals lit­tle ex­cept Ay­oola scrolling around on her smart­phone or ditz­ing about in ways that amuse her and us but in­fu­ri­ate Korede.

But grad­u­ally seem­ingly mi­nor events turn out to be im­por­tant, ei­ther re­veal­ing some­thing of the sis­ters’ child­hoods, or show­ing that while Korede has a doggy de­vo­tion to Ay­oola, the younger Ay­oola has the cat’s abil­ity to show up seem­ingly out of nowhere, just when good-girl bossy sis­ter Korede needs her.

The only other per­son who is on Korede’s side is Muhtar, who even­tu­ally emerges from his coma. His shrewish wife is less than happy at this turn of events, and the pic­ture the author sketches of his fam­ily life adds com­plex­ity to the cen­tral ac­count of the sis­ters and the house­hold where they live with their mother. The house is in a mid­dle-class area of La­gos, and one of the plea­sures of the novel is the author’s de­scrip­tions of the city, tan­gled in traf­fic and throbbing with en­ergy.

She also ef­fec­tively evokes Muhtar and Tade, the two men on the edge of Korede’s life, and Ay­oola jumps off the pages, smart­phone in hand, with all the verve of the femme fa­tale. The in­do­lent and sassy Yinka is also deftly sketched, though other char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing the sis­ters’ mother and aunt, and Korede’s col­leagues are less ef­fec­tive be­cause they are one-di­men­sional. None­the­less, Korede and Ay­oola are worth spend­ing time with, and “My Sis­ter The Se­rial Killer” is al­ways in­trigu­ing, of­ten amus­ing, and in the end, af­fect­ing too.

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