Braithwaite debuts with an intelligent pleasure read, but not a literary sensation

Tuesday, September 3, 2019 - 5:08pm

Oyinkan Braithwaite

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Take any page from Oyinkan Braithwaite’s novel “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” and it’s clear that Korede, Braithwaite’s main character, has troubles with men. Her difficulties bleed through all two-hundred pages of the debut, in flashback and in her present storytelling. But thanks to — you guessed it — her serial killer of a sister, these men are frequently long-dead by the time Korede deals with them. And that’s only the start of her problems.

After a murder mystery made it onto last year’s Booker Longlist, it’s not surprising that an outwardly genre-bending novel such as Braithwaite’s has made it onto 2019’s literary list. The story opens unabashedly as a thriller with Korede scrubbing blood from the caulking of a bathroom floor. The chapter is called “bleach.” It’s the third time that her sister, Ayoola, has murdered a man, and it’s the third time Korede’s helped her discard the body. Clinging to sibling loyalty, from the get-go Korede appears unwilling to intervene in this pattern of crime. It’s intriguing, and it’s believable. The two continue forward — the Lagos police never terribly far behind — until Ayoola begins dating Tade, the embarrassingly oblivious doctor from Korede’s workplace whom she is also in love with. Quickly, “My Sister” evolves into a drama of sibling rivalry, disproportionate power and self-sacrifice with a seasoning of murder.

Most apparent — and disappointing — in “My Sister” is that Braithwaite’s writing never manages to escape a brisk, cataloguing thriller style. And the story unravels, passages are slowly reduced in length until readers are left with half-page chapters that serve as flashbacks — a page-turner tactic that, perhaps lazily, functions to give half-glances into truth that keeps you reading. These blips, often ending in almost-cliffhanger dialogue passages, push “My Sister” back into line with other thriller-esque novels. There’s nothing literarily fantastic about this type of prose. A pattern of Agatha Christie influence practically moves the pages for readers, and makes obvious that Braithwaite knows her characters and story. But it also makes “My Sister” an odd, too-comfortable choice for a Booker longlist.

What the debut does prove, however, is that Braithwaite will not be limited in her future storytelling. Kicking out calculated law sequences or gore-over-character tactics the genre often beckons, the space is filled with well-developed relationships and intricate questions that Braithwaite leaves often unanswered. Korede and Ayoola’s bond is the most believable, with the two character’s motives particularly complex as Ayoola’s habits threaten to force the two into becoming opponents. Korede’s reliability becomes weaker through the novel, making the relationship but more convincing as this disconnect from reality chips away at the sisters’s bond.

What one would guess has attracted literature fanatics to the “My Sister, the Serial Killer” is almost surely Braithwaite’s ability to handle these relationships and mature themes within the thriller environment. Abuse as a theme slowly rises to the surface of the debut. Braithwaite holds her cards carefully here, thankfully reluctant to force symbolism or dramatization for the sake of moving her novel into a higher literary caliber. Rather, such themes exist peacefully alongside the serial-killing fireworks of the novel. Korede’s situation becomes less about the thrill of the kill and more about the morality of each of the characters in their day-to-day lives. By the climax of the novel, readers are invested in much more than just the desire to know who Ayoola will kill next.

Do great novels have to be groundbreaking? Probably not. “My Sister” can be a sufficient piece of fiction without offering anything revolutionary. Still, with a stack of potential literary prizes, the debut feels like it has only brushed against its potential.