Booker Longlist Review: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
I am reading the longlist in the following order: first, the books I have in hand, from shortest to longest. I read Lanny a few weeks ago, and by coincidence it is one of the shortest. When the list was announced I went to my library Overdrive site and snagged four of the entries available in the US. I started with My Sister the Serial Killer and finished it in an evening, since it’s short and eminently readable.
As I said in my earlier post, I’ve been avoiding this book for months. I kept seeing it in bookstores and it’s a lovely hardcover edition, small and compact with great paper and font. But I balked at paying hardcover book prices for a novella that sounded like a genre book marketed as lit fic. Then it won the Tournament of Books in the spring, and the readers who loved it really loved it. I checked it out of the library but returned it without opening it. Then it made the Women’s Prize longlist, and once again, some readers really loved it. This prize mixes the readable with the more experimental, and MStSK clearly fell on the readable side. I passed again.
But once it was on the longlist, I caved. I started reading before dinner (the longlist was announced at 4pm my time) and finished before 11pm. It was terrific! I was so wrong about this book. It is most definitely about a sister who is a serial killer, but it’s about a lot more: sibling relationships, family relationships, gender in a patriarchal society, the burdens of externally and self-imposed responsibilities, all layered into a deceptively small and light package. And the voice is fantastic.
It’s a debut novel, albeit a very accomplished one, and perhaps because of that none of the “twists” (if that’s what the author meant them to be) were a surprise. But they all fit the plot and the theme. I could see them all coming and I nodded my head at them because it made so much sense that things turned out as they did. Both the sisters are portrayed in nuanced, complex ways, and their relationship was beautifully done. I don’t have siblings, but I’ve observed TheH’s sibling relationships, and my cousins, who are mostly women, have equally complicated and fascinating relationships (without the serial killing, obviously). Everything about Korede’s attitudes toward Ayoola rang true, and Ayoola was equal parts infuriating and charismatic. Their bond came so alive on the page.
The novel is equally good on what it’s like to be a woman in a patriarchical society, or rather, what it’s like to be women, because there are a variety of women depicted. Some are wonderful, some are awful, but they’re all completely believable. Even in a short sketch Braithwaite can convey the complexity of an individual character. The men are less sympathetically portrayed, but the portrayals are not inaccurate.
In the past few years the Booker longlist has featured at least one and often more debut novels by young women authors. This is the only one this year but it’s the best of all the ones I’ve read. If you’ve been putting it off because the cover looks too cartoonish, or the title is off-putting, read it anyway. It’s really worth it.