Should you be in need of one of those books that you read in a delicious, headlong rush because you can't possibly put it down, I recommend "My Sister, the Serial Killer," the debut novel by Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite. It's crime fiction, but it's also a wickedly dark comedy, a wise examination of the bonds within a family, and a character study of a young woman who just can't say no—to her sister, who has a nasty habit of killing her boyfriends.
And it's also longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize—a rare honor for a thriller. Judges for the prize said Braithwaite's novel was "as skillful, sharp and engaging a debut as any first novelist can produce," packed with prose "as pointed as a lethal weapon," according to The Guardian.
The novel is told from the point of view of Korede, a nurse who lives with her family in Lagos, Nigeria. She's a quiet, painfully tidy young woman who exists in the shadows of her beautiful, vivacious sister Ayoola, the favored child of their widowed mother. ("Ayoola's loveliness is a phenomenon that took my mother by surprise," muses Korede. "She was so thankful that she forgot to keep trying for a boy.") Ayoola is the sort who expects others to clean up her messes—quite literally. Luckily, Korede knows that bleach can clean away a multitude of stains. I'll say no more, just know that this quick, compact novel will take you to unexpected places; some of them grisly, but some of them unexpectedly moving.
"My Sister, the Serial Killer" was a big hit upon its publication in 2018; it was named to a number of best-books-of-the-year lists and was a finalist for the prestigious Women's Prize for Fiction. Though she's part of a strong recent line of Nigerian-born women authors—among them Ayebami Adebayo ("Stay With Me"), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ("Half of a Yellow Sun," "Americanah"), Helen Oyeyemi ("Boy, Snow, Bird," "Gingerbread"), and Chinelo Okparanta ("Under the Udala Trees")—Braithwaite's voice is unique; I've never read anything quite like "My Sister, the Serial Killer," and I can't wait to read more from this author.
Braithwaite answered some questions over email.
Q: Here's the place where I fell hopelessly in love with your book: page 12 (U.S. hardcover edition), when Korede—helping her murderer sister dispose of a body—expresses suspicion about the young mother who just misses the elevator: "What good could she be up to moving around at that hour, with a child in tow?" Did you initially set out to write a serial-killer thriller that was funny? Or did the wit emerge along the way?
A: Thank you! I didn't realize the story was funny until the initial reviews started to come out! Prior to that, I would not have described it as a comedy, dark or otherwise. Though I think the humor came about because I was writing a dark tale, a novel, and I didn't want to be immersed in darkness for that length of time. So my characters were very matter of fact about the horrific things taking place, and so was I.
Q: What was the initial spark or inspiration for this story?
A: In 2007, I wrote a poem about the black widow spider. Then I followed it soon after with a poem about two friends. The prettier friend was the traditional black widow—marrying men, poisoning them and inheriting their wealth. In 2017, when I wrote "My Sister, the Serial Killer," I was able to draw from these two poems.
Q: This is your first novel, and I'm always interested in how novelists approach their work. Did you plot everything out in advance or sketch out the characters and see where they took you? (Perhaps literally sketching, as you're an artist?)
A: I definitely didn't plot everything out. I find if I know everything that is meant to happen, I lose the desire to write it out. I like to be surprised. But I did have a general idea of who my characters were and what they would be doing. I developed them as I wrote.
I still haven't learnt to draw directly from my imagination, but perhaps I will in the future.
Q: "My Sister, the Serial Killer" is a quick read, with short, propulsive chapters and a can't-put-this-down quality. Was it quick to write?
A: Yes, it was very quick to write. I wrote it in a sort of frenzy. I also wrote each chapter on a separate Word document. I rarely looked back during the first draft.
Q: This novel would be entirely different from Ayoola's point of view. Was it always entirely from Korede's consciousness, or did you ever consider additional voices?
A: I liked that Korede was in the story but was also outside of it. She isn't the catalyst. Her point of view was perfect.
Q: American readers will be delighted to find the game of Clue, called Cluedo, playing a key role in the book. Is it popular in Nigeria?
A: I have come across Monopoly, Scrabble and chess quite a bit in Nigeria; but I rarely see Cluedo. Still, it is one of my favorite games to play.
Q: I've heard that you are a big fan of the Brontes. Was "Jane Eyre," "Wuthering Heights" or any other classic an influence on your writing of this novel? Also, what crime-fiction authors do you admire?
A: I thought of "Wuthering Heights" before writing my novel. "Wuthering Heights" is narrated by characters that were not active participants in the tale. Korede is certainly more involved but she isn't the killer and she isn't the victim, at least not in the obvious sense.
I am a big fan of Minette Walters. I also enjoy reading Karin Slaughter, Lee Child. I read "Scrublands" by Chris Hammer recently and really enjoyed it.