A consequential meditation on beauty trapped in the disfiguring mask of a predictable and amusing thriller
I’m not a fan of serial killer fiction because, well, it should be obvious why—the whole glorifying of the murderer’s mind thing gets under my skin. Really, they are horrible and sick and writers do a literary and cultural disservice by creating serial killers with sufficiently intriguing character attributes to anchor a novel.
So, why did I pick up My Sister, the Serial Killer?
Because the cover design rocks.
Yes, I selected Oyinkan Braithwaite’s book because of its cover. Shallow. But there it is. Well, that’s not one hundred percent true; rather it was the symbiotic perfection of the title juxtaposed against this cover design, and the resulting dialectical jarring uncertainty of what kind of reading experience would be found behind those shades.
I had to know.
And lo and behold, I slipped into the plot almost immediately, and further admit, right off the bat, I fell a little in love with serial killer Ayaoola.
Ayaoola is knock-your-socks-off off lovely. Heads swerve on the street. People want to be her, emulate her, dress her, befriend her, or in the case of almost every man, buy her dinner, pay her way through school, take in her scent, make love to her, marry her—whatever detached Ayaoola will give is gladly, rapaciously, accepted and disproportionately reciprocated.
Ayaoola is aware of her power; and thus, because beauty does not mean she lacks intelligence, Ayaoola has developed a darkly honest understanding and insight into people. They are, she concludes, depthless.
In part, she concludes this because Ayaoola loves her sister, Korede, the narrator of this fast-moving story set in Lagos, Nigeria. Korede is the plain sister; hard-working, patient, whip-smart, loyal. Ayaoola sees how the world treats un-beautiful Korede and doesn’t think much of the world’s collective poor behavior.
Here’s what happens in the novel: Ayaoola has a habit of killing her boyfriends. Korede helps dispense with the bodies (at task for which her practical nature is well-suited). When we meet the sisters, the body count is up to three boyfriends which, by Korede’s reckoning, aided by a crime manual, formally defines Ayaoola as a serial killer.
It’s not clear why Ayaoola murders boyfriends; it might be as straightforward as it’s simply easier than the emotional mess of breaking up. A plausible and predictable (and not entirely satisfying) psychological childhood backstory of abuse for the killing is gradually revealed. But no matter, discerning Ayaoola’s motivation is not what the story is about.
The plot’s essential conflict unfolds when Korede cleanup of the most recent killing has a few missteps—will they get caught this time? Meanwhile, Ayaoola becomes involved with Korede’s love interest, largely to prove the point to Korede that men only care about beauty. The situation is rapidly spinning out of control and Korede will be forced to choose between saving the man she dreams of marrying or turning Ayaoola over to the authorities. And then the plot takes a twist when it turns out someone else knows what Ayaoola is up to, making Korede’s decision more complex.
That’s the bare bones of it; there is a good deal more texture and color to the story, a few small surprises, and the novel includes a cast of entertaining secondary characters. On the face of it, it’s a superficial and somewhat amusing novel that’s hard to put down, like a romance or good mystery can be hard to put down—a fine way to spend a few hours.
But there’s more, and this is what sets My Sister, the Serial Killer apart from the standard murdering fare—emerging slowly over the course of the story from the interstitial spaces paradoxically carved out by the detached simplicity of the plot, is a thoughtful and mildly disturbing meditation on what society allows, or excuses, for a beautiful woman along with a consideration of family bonds, specifically sisterly love. By the end of the book, the author has put us each inside the plot, demanding an answer to this question: How far would you go to protect your beautiful boyfriend-killing sister?