A Unique Take on the Serial Killer Formula
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut, MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER, is an extraordinary novel. The premise is that two sisters are so close that the elder, Korede, covers up the younger’s killings. Initially, Korede believes them to be in self-defense, but is eventually forced to accept that they’re actually murders. It’s a very different take on the usual serial-killer formula, but just as gripping, and gives insight into the tortured depth of family ties.
The novel won the LA Times award for best crime thriller, was long listed for the Booker Prize, and short listed for the Women’s Fiction Prize. A stunning accomplishment for a debut thriller author. The New York Times said MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER was “…a bombshell of a book—sharp, explosive, hilarious. With a deadly aim, Braithwaite lobs jokes, japes and screwball comedy at the reader. Only after you turn the last page do you realize that, as with many brilliant comic writers before her, laughter for Braithwaite is as good for covering up pain as bleach is for masking the smell of blood.” The New York Times was not alone.
The Sunday Times called MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER “a scorching crime thriller,” and The Guardian said it was “Deceptively simple and deliciously wicked, this is crime fiction that is a cut above the rest.”
There’s really not much I can add to that. If you read only one book from Africa this year, make this the one.
Oyinkan has degrees in creative writing and law. She’s an editor and writer, and has published a number of short stories and poems. In 2016, she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
In this interview for The Big Thrill, Oyinkan gives fresh insight into her debut, MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER, starting with the inspiration for the story.
In 2007, I discovered the black widow spider—a creature whose female would devour the male after mating. And I suppose that is when the idea of a woman recklessly using her power to the detriment of the men in her life first took root in my mind. I wrote a poem called “Black Widow Spider” and then followed it with a poem about two friends—one who was attractive and one who was not. The attractive friend married wealthy men, poisoned them, and inherited their wealth. These two poems served as the roadmap for MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER.
Korede is the narrator. She is a meticulous and dedicated nurse, torn between her need to stop her sister before she kills another man, and her compulsion to protect her. Despite what seems an untenable existence, Korede is completely believable. How did you find the right voice for her?
I wanted her to be true, even if she wasn’t particularly likeable. It allowed me to be bold. And though I have been told that some of my sensibilities are reflected in Korede, for the most part, writing a character who was so far removed from who I am as an individual gave me the freedom to experiment.
In a way the book has two stories—the present day dilemma for Korede, and the two girls growing up with an abusive father and subservient mother. Slowly, you allow us to learn the background as the tension builds in the present. Tolstoy wrote that “…every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Was this what you were exploring in the novel?
I needed their family to be an unhappy family because I believed that the trauma would further bind Korede and Ayoola.
With her stunning looks and dress sense, Ayoola attracts men like flies to honey, leaving Korede quietly jealous. That’s fine until Ayoola goes after the kind and dedicated Dr. Tade. Tade works with Korede, who loves him and hopes that one day he’ll notice her. Yet it is Korede who learns the lesson. Ayoola is right—Tade is just like all other men. He falls for Ayoola’s good looks and charm and he has little interest in what goes on in her head. Would you comment?
This story was my way of examining the way society engages with beauty. And in as much as Korede learns how shallow the people around her are, she is also quite superficial herself. I believe the male and female characters are equally glib.
In contrast to Tade, Muhtar does appreciate Korede for her personality and her strength. He forces Korede to face the reality of her choices. Was this always intended to be his role?
I didn’t have a particular intention for Muhtar. At first he was just this man in a coma and then I had to determine who he was when he opened his eyes. And then I became curious about him and his life and the choices that he had made.
From the first page we know that MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER is set in Nigeria. There’s a strong sense of place and it was natural for you to set it there. Would the story have worked as well if it had been set in some other country? For example, how important is the corruption and incompetence of the police to the plot?
I don’t think it would have worked as well had I set it in the UK, for example. Nigeria very quickly became central to the story. I suppose my low opinion of the police here in Lagos meant that I could allow my characters to continue to get away with things that ordinarily they shouldn’t have been able to get away with.
Are you working on another novel, and will it also be crime fiction?
I have two short stories coming out in October, but I haven’t decided yet what my second novel will be.