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Bound by blood – ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’

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Just how far are we prepared to go to protect the ones we love?

If someone dear to us is in trouble, we help them. Obviously. But where’s the line? At what point do the larger ethical and moral ramifications of our help become unconscionable to us? Where our assistance actually aids in the continuation of something we ourselves find abhorrent?

That’s the underlying concern in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s dryly funny, no-nonsense debut novel “My Sister, the Serial Killer” (Doubleday, $22.95). An older sister with a wavering and resentful devotion to the younger – a devotion that extends to cleaning up some unpleasant messes – questions the motives behind that devotion. It’s a spare and biting look at just how deep our familial bonds can flow – and what blood relations do when another’s blood is spilled.

Korede is a nurse at a hospital in Nigeria. She lives at home with her mother and her sister Ayoola. The sisters have been close since childhood despite having very little in common. Korede considers herself to be plain, while Ayoola is stunningly beautiful. Korede works hard at her job; Ayoola breezes through hers. Korede is cynical, Ayoola naïve. Korede is forever, while Ayoola cycles through beaus.

And speaking of those beaus – they have an unfortunate tendency to wind up dead by Ayoola’s hand.

Three times, this has happened. Three times, Korede has gotten the call from her younger sister, the call explaining that this new boyfriend had said something or done something, threatened her or struck her, made her so afraid that she had no choice but to stab him with the nine-inch knife she happens to keep handy at all times. Three times, Korede has taken care of it, whether through a meticulous scrubdown and body disposal or evidence-destroying arson.

Three times. According to Google, that makes Ayoola a serial killer.

Korede struggles with the morality of what she has done. She loves her sister, wants to protect her and keep her out of jail for acts that weren’t her fault. Except, maybe they WERE Ayoola’s fault. And if so, is Korede enabling her sister’s seeming ease with killing? What if it keeps happening? What happens if they get caught?

All the while, Korede pines for the affectionate attention of Tade, the charming, handsome doctor – right up until he asks for Ayoola’s phone number, leaving Korede trapped between wanting to save the man she silently and unrequitedly loves and protecting her sister’s secret. Korede’s sole confidant is one of her patients, a man in a coma who is the only person to whom she can truly unburden herself.

Still, family ties or no, secrets – especially dark secrets – can be awfully difficult to keep.

There’s a weirdly engaging style to “My Sister, the Serial Killer” – the story is narrated by Korede, whose pragmatic nature flavors the tale. That pragmatism stands in sharp contrast the visceral nature of the action. Having such deeds described in a voice of dry exasperation makes for a compelling and quick reading experience; it also allows the occasional moment of more obvious vividity in the writing to shine that much brighter.

Family is the magnetic north of this story, the unwavering force toward which Korede must steer. She may do so willingly, or even consciously, but she cannot help herself. The cultural expectations and personal connections are tangled and snarled, leaving her with no choice in the matter. Family is the most important thing, even if it isn’t always the right thing.

That’s the thing about this book: there’s no denying that you are very much in Korede’s head. It’s rare to be so subsumed by a character’s perspective in the book. The clipped nature of the chapters (and the shortness of the book as a whole) offer perfectly-timed windows into her thoughts, glimpses of personality that rapidly add up. You’re alongside the character in a way that you’re not often lucky enough to experience in a book.

And it’s funny. Not a guffawing or knee-slapping funny. A slow burn funny. A truly situational funny. A satiric, very dark funny.

“My Sister, the Serial Killer” is the kind of bold, fearless writing you don’t necessarily expect from a first-time novelist. Braithwaite proves capable of evoking darkness without being exploitive or overly bleak; there are lights that burn in the shadows that she casts, though not for long. A laudable debut, to be sure – we’ll undoubtedly be hearing more from Oyinkan Brathwaite.

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