Content warning: violence, death, partner abuse, child abuse
My sixth book in the 2022 challenge is My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. The book satisfies Category 16 of the challenge, a popular novel published after 2010. I have chosen to interpret popular to mean commercial. This refers more to a novel’s aims more than its quality. Indeed, this book was nominated for the Booker Prize, as have other books that most readers would deem commercial. But commercial books tend to be more accessible and plot-driven than their more literary counterparts. Not better or worse, just different. A blog post on Spread the Word offers a thoughtful discussion on the differences between commercial and literary fiction, as well as times that they can overlap.
Korede, a Lagos-based nurse, would do anything for her sister Ayoola. This includes Korede using her medical training to clean up after Ayoola kills her boyfriends. The book begins right after the third killing. However, Korede’s loyalties are tested when Ayoola shows interest in a doctor colleague that Korede has had her eye on for ages; even more so when that interest appears to be returned.
In the meantime, Korede airs her frustrations, including describing her sister’s crimes and her own complicity in them, by talking to a comatose patient in the hospital where she works. But what happens when that patient wakes up? What does the patient remember, and what does he want to do about it?
As the story progresses, we learn more about why Korede, and to a lesser extent, Ayoola, make the choices they do. While you may not endorse the sisters’ behavior, you do come to understand it better.
What I liked
The book is a really easy read. It doesn’t get as grim as you might expect, given the subject matter. I’m not opposed to grimness when it serves the story, but after Beloved and Goliath, this was a palate cleanser.
Also, it was cool to read a story set in contemporary Africa—Nigeria in this case. Being in the US, not only are a lot of books set here, but it’s also easy not to branch out. There’s definitely enough material that I could only read books set in the US for the rest of my life if I wanted. But part of the fun of reading for me is getting insight into how people who are different from me live their lives. And while, for the most part, contemporary Nigerians are motivated by the same things as Americans, and presumably people just about everywhere, there are some differences that it’s good to be aware of.
For instance, Braithwaite touches on how powerful men are often given license to basically do whatever they want, regardless of who they hurt in the process. Certainly that happens a lot here, too, but there were elements that played out differently because of that specific setting.
What I didn’t like
Most of the chapters in this book were super short, like 2-3 pages. That’s neither good nor bad in itself, but in this particular case, I felt like it kept me from getting to know the main characters as well as I would have liked.
This was a quick, fun read for me, which is generally what commercial fiction aims for. That said, it did give us at least some depth to the main characters, which commercial fiction often lacks. If you’re the kind of reader who gets frustrated when characters make choices that you disagree with morally, this book probably isn’t for you, but then again, neither is most reading.
I’m going back to Romanian literature with the next book, which is I’m an Old Commie! by Dan Lungu. This satisfies Category 13, a psychological novel. This will also be my first book by a living Romanian author.
Do you enjoy stories about family dilemmas? Leave your thoughts in the comments!