Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

June 12, 2020

I wasn't blown away. I'd expected to be blown away; the title of this short novel is gripping, original, full of promise, the book was all over my Instagram feed and just look at the book cover, (there's a familiar lesson there somewhere...) but the book fell short of my expectations.    

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was an enjoyable, easy read that touched on some interesting themes including familial relationships, beauty and privilege, crime, the cycle of violence and the justice, cultural and patriarchal systems at play in Nigeria. It's the story of Korede and her beautiful, younger sister, Ayoola, who kills her boyfriends and relies on Korede to help cover up the murders. 
If you watch or read a lot of forensically and psychologically deep crime dramas, you are probably excited by the title of this book, but dampen your expectations: this is not a crime thriller; it's far more about the sisters and their relationship than it is about the crimes. 

It took 50 pages for me to be semi-gripped by My Sister, the Serial Killer, when the first significant obstacle arises for our protagonist when Ayoola, the serial-killing sister, meets and is attracted to Korede's love interest. Suddenly, I could see where the story might go, and the plot was then enough to keep me reading. 
Aside from the plot, I didn't particularly enjoy the book. As a reader who likes literary writing, beautiful language and meaningful cultural commentary, My Sister, the Serial Killer doesn't make it out on top. This book made me question whether I like first-person narratives, as Korede's perspective grated on me almost as much as did the first-person narrative in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: a book I enthusiastically cast aside after 50 pages. Too much is said in this first-person narrative; Korede states feelings or thoughts that the reader would already have picked up on. This makes her emotions seem mechanical, performed, rather than deep and relatable. 

Skilful writing leaves things unsaid at the right time, it's in those gaps that the reader applies common human experience, emotion or even plain knowledge of what's gone before in the text (Braithwaite sometimes states things, through Korede, that the reader already knows). Reading between the lines is what engages readers with texts because this makes the reader needed. When everything is stated and nothing hinted at, the result is a disappointing distance between reader and text. 

The book feels like a first draft, written to figure out the plot, secondary characters and dialogue: aspects which are successful. Another version would be more intentional with language and metaphor, more effective with its themes and would create a more interesting Korede. This version would live up to the killer title.


Some reviewers have argued a strong sense of place. The story is set in Lagos and whilst we do get some interesting details attesting to that fact - Nigerian gestures, dress and speaking styles are littered throughout the book - the sense of place is not as strong as other books set in Lagos such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ayòbámi Adébáyò's works, whose novels are about Lagos as much as they are about plot. I fell in love with Adichie's and Adébáyò's Lagos and learned so much from their novels about cultures different to my own, but it was equally powerful for Braithwaite to scatter Nigerian references through the book without positioning it within any political contexts or grounding it too heavily in place just because it is a non-Western setting! We absolutely shouldn't rely on fiction authors to teach us about places and cultures we don't know well; that learning is on us. I think it is powerful to have casual representation of places, people and cultures that haven't previously been represented in publishing; these representations are normalised through this casualness.
However, it is interesting to think about how the novel's very setting - Lagos - enables the plot. In a world saturated with forensically-savvy crime dramas, it seems kind of crazy that the sisters get away with covering up so many murders, but My Sister, the Serial Killer is a comment on corrupt and poorly-funded policing systems beyond the Western context we're familiar with from TVPart of me wanted this theme to be explored more deeply, but it was right for the book to only provide a light touch on its many themes as the fun and quirky plot is what this book is really about.  

In summary, My Sister, the Serial Killer is worth a read and is suitably enjoyable.


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