DECEMBER 19, 2018
WOE BE TO the novel protagonist that finds out a loved one is complicit in a serious crime. At such a moment, a wonderful gap opens in both the character and reader. This is someone the protagonist cares deeply about, and that someone is in big trouble. Worse, now that the main character knows about the crime, she might be in trouble too. While enjoying such a story, I typically try to massage the law in my head. I hope to prove to myself that the protagonist’s knowledge of the crime and not coming forward about it is not, in fact, a crime itself. I try remembering past episodes of Law & Order, search my mind for fictional or even real examples of characters or people escaping prosecution despite full knowledge of the offense. These are moments fiction writers strive for. The reader so deeply empathizes with the protagonist that she actively engages in the story. Such legal math seems integral to the pleasurable reading of crime fiction.
From the beginning of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s darkly compelling My Sister, the Serial Killer, protagonist Korede suffers no illusion about her complicity. The novel starts with her sister Alooya’s third murder, and Korede’s efficiency in cleanup and coverup reveals not only her resourcefulness but also her culpability:
Ayoola darted to the lift, pressed the button, ran back to us and lifted Femi’s shoulders once more. I peeked out of the apartment and confirmed that the landing was still clear. I was tempted to pray, to beg that no door be opened as we journeyed from door to lift, but I am fairly certain that those are exactly the types of prayers He doesn’t answer.
I’m always amazed at the power love grants the beloved individual over the one doing the loving. I know many parents who seemingly sacrifice everything for their children. In a recent example, a friend of mine paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for her child to attend a tony college across the country only to have the kid fail to attend a final round of summer classes and miss out on his diploma. I was struck dumb. Can’t you throw him out of the house? Disown him? Strangle him? Then I remembered the people I love, and I got it. That’s where the reader’s empathy for Korede comes from. Anyone who’s ever loved someone in this way can relate to her.
Being a nurse, Korede seems tailor-made for the cleanup tasks her sister lays out for her. Ayoola has an annoying penchant for murdering her boyfriends, and the sisters’ relationship takes on the familiar dimensions of the reckless younger one who never pays for her actions, and the put-upon but ultimately responsible older one who takes care of the mess:
I soaked up the blood with a towel and wrung it out in the sink. I repeated the motions until the floor was dry. Ayoola hovered, leaning on one foot and then the other. I ignored her impatience. It takes a whole lot longer to dispose of a body than to dispose of a soul.
Korede is thoughtful and diligent in every task, polite in company, faithful as a churchgoer to her nurse duties. Ayoola is the unfortunate impetus bringing many of Korede’s noble traits to the fore. Braithwaite skillfully has us ignore Korede’s crimes and focuses us instead on her value. We just want, despite ourselves, for Korede to get past these pesky murders and find happiness.
Happiness, for Korede, takes the form of Tade, a doctor at the hospital where she works. Tade is young, handsome, and clearly in want of a wife. Nowhere does he reveal his perfect husbandly tendencies better than when singing to placate scared children in his doctor’s office. “It doesn’t matter that he sings ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ We still have goosebumps. Is there anything more beautiful than a man with a voice like an ocean?” If there is one surprise about the novel’s setting — the Nigerian city of Lagos — it’s how many Austenian traits the sisters and their family members share. Korede is very interested in marriage, especially to Tade. Ayoola might be more aloof than her sister to the idea of marriage, but she definitely operates within the traditional heterosexual context of dating men, with all that entails. The women’s mother rarely misses an opportunity to note what a perfect husband Tade would make. Short of the occasional murder or two, this is Sense and Sensibility all over again.
Also reminiscent of Austen is Braithwaite’s sense for the specific detail that makes a character resonate, allowing for deep empathy. Nowhere is she more astute in this regard than in dealing with the relative attractiveness of the sisters. Ayoola, of course, wins the race here, leaving Korede with the bad childhood memories of heartless boys:
They would draw pictures of girls and exaggerate their best or worst features and tack them on the school notice board for the world to see — at least until the teachers took the pictures down, tearing them from the pins, an act that left a little shred of paper stuck like a taunt.
Korede is the sister whose pain never washes away, despite her incessant scrubbing. Ayoola seems baffled by the concept of pain in the first place. Together, they come to represent a new twist on modern sisterly dysfunction, an Elinor and Marianne Dashwood for the iPhone generation. Ayoola’s Instragam account must have thousands of followers.
With the resourceful, devoted Korede, the gorgeous, oblivious Ayoola, and the handsome, available Tade, Braithwaite has all of the pieces in place for maximum conflict, and the story flows ineluctably down its most heartbreaking path (for Korede). When Tade sends Ayoola a bouquet of orchids, the younger sister texts that she prefers roses, and is conveniently missing the next time a delivery person comes to the door. “They are not the already wilting roses with which Ayoola’s admirers usually grace our table — these flowers are bursting with life. I try not to inhale the sickly sweet smell and I try not to cry.” Braithwaite wants Korede’s hands around that vase, smelling those flowers from her beloved — not for herself but for her beautiful, demented sister. This is expert storytelling that feels all the more painful because the scene is so earned — not just a way to make Korede cry, but to make the reader grieve for her as well.
Considering her sister’s propensity for killing her gentleman callers, Korede has many compelling reasons to make sure Tade knows the score about Ayoola. The plot of this tale, as in many murder mysteries, is the setup to push the protagonist to the limit; Braithwaite rarely misses the chance to pitch Korede’s sense of goodness, rightness, and desire for a happy life against the evil and wrong she knows her sister brings to the world. Almost no one is spared Ayoola’s carelessness and obliviousness, and Korede is the one left holding the secrets that could end this pain for everyone but her sister. It doesn’t matter if any of the other characters would believe Korede’s allegations against Ayoola or not. The reader certainly gets it.
All this ratcheted, externalized tension and pathos makes it easy to imagine a film version of the novel, but to suggest that the story is merely an elaborate screenplay diminishes what Braithwaite has accomplished here. The prose is as deft, personal, and economic as it is evocative. “I cleaned that car. I cleaned it within an inch of its life. If they find a dot of blood, it will be because they bled while they were searching.” There’s a compelling intimacy to the writer’s style, a sense that Korede is taking you into her confidence, almost whispering her confessions into your ear. Her own sins are great — despite Ayoola outshining her even in this department — but the fact that she struggles to say them out loud is part of her appeal. Orwell’s theory of the writing as a clean pane of glass comes to mind. If you don’t notice Braithwaite’s skill as a wordsmith, well, yeah, that’s the point.
In a murder tale, comedy of manners, or virtually any other kind of longform story, the key is making the reader care about the characters. Anyone who’s ever tried the form can attest that such engagement is hardly automatic. Characters tend to want to be boring, unlikable, or irrelevant. There are a million ways things can go wrong. Further, one could argue that with digital technology saturating our attentions and redefining our level of patience with words, it gets harder and harder for readers to open themselves to fictional characters. That’s what makes Braithwaite’s accomplishment so special. She combines the comparatively lighter tropes of Jane Austen with a dark tale of murder, familial complication, and moral compromise, and thereby redefines both tropes for a new generation. The reader doesn’t need to concern herself with what kind of novel she’s reading. She’s too busy being engaged to notice.
Art Edwards’s reviews have or will appear in The Believer, Kenyon Review, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Barrelhouse, The Collagist, JMWW, Entropy, and The Rumpus, among others.