My Sister, The Serial Killer

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, The Serial Killer
(London: Atlantic Books, 2019)

‘Ayoola, are you watching?’
‘Mm-hmm,’ she replies as she leans on the counter and types furiously on her phone with one hand. She is still gripping the kitchen knife with the other. I go over to her, remove her fingers from the hilt and take the knife from her possession. She blinks.
‘Please focus; after this we add the tàtàsé.’
‘Got it.’
As soon as I turn my back, I hear the tapping sound of her keypad again. I am tempted to react, but I have left the palm oil for too long and it is beginning to spit and hiss at me. I reduce the heat of the flame and decide to forget about my sister for the time being. If she wants to learn, she will.
‘What are we making again?’
‘Èfọ́,’ the house girl replies.
Ayoola nods solemnly and angles her phone over the pot of simmering ẹ̀fọ́, just as I add the spinach. ‘Hey people, ẹ̀fọ́ loading!’
For a moment, I am frozen, spinach still in hand. Could she really be uploading videos to Snapchat? Then I shake myself out of the trance. I grab the phone from her and hit delete, staining the screen with the oil on my hands.
‘Too soon, Ayoola. Way too soon.’

My Sister, The Serial Killer is a novel taut in the economy of its language but rich with the possibility of mixed meaning or misinterpretation; in this, its form matches its subject matter to an almost unsettling degree. Ayoola, serial-killing sister to Korede, our narrator, is a masterful user of social media, a medium whose shallowness matches Ayoola’s own, which may or may not be cultivated as part of a strategy of survival in the face of a cruelly patriarchal social structure. In Braithwaite’s novel, Lagos is a place where criminality is a flexible construct, as likely to be decided by whether one makes eye contact with a traffic policeman as by any law-breaking behaviour. Some reviewers were troubled by the ‘motivelessness’ of Ayoola’s violent acts, apparently longing for an excavation of her tortured psyche, but such complaints miss the necessity—the utility—of shallowness in the novel, a form of being amplified and enabled by the ever-present mobile phone via which Ayoola shares herself with the world at large.

In this short exchange, the relationship between Korede and Ayoola is captured in microcosm, as are the delicate class structures that constitute much of the novel’s backdrop. With Braithwaite’s typical poker-faced humour, we see Korede reprimand her sister for uploading a Snapchat video of their dinner preparations—inappropriate, as Korede has already reminded her, when her most recent Instagram post was of an ex-boyfriend who is missing, presumed dead (definitely dead, as the novel opens with the scene of his demise). As with much else in the novel, this points to the way in which visual narrative offers a disjointed archive of self which generates cycles of objectification and self-centredness: the celebrity death announcement that mourns the loss of a stranger, the Facebook memorial page visited by acquaintances but not friends, all those modern markers of transactional intimacy that we find ‘always on’ when the phone becomes a portal not to another person, but to the world at large.

by Tricia Malone