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.
I just started listening to the audible version of My Sister the Serial Killer. It’s a great performance so far. Looking forward to finishing but I can’t schedule listening as easily as reading for some reason.
This would be awesome in audio with a good narrator.
This turned out to be available from my library’s no holds cloud-only digital collection. Which is an OK way to read for something short. So, fine. I’m in. I think that I won’t be able to get my hands on most of the Booker list any time soon. (Even Book Depository orders seem to take forever for me these days). Just when I had my library hold guilt under control!
Yay! I hope you like it.
Ditto on Book Depository for me. One of their books last year took forever to arrive and landed in CA after I’d left, so I didn’t get it until October or something. They used to be 2 weeks max, then they became 2 weeks minimum and usually longer. Bleh. I’m going to try Blackwells for print now, if I am not buying direct from the publisher (the small indie presses in the UK are always faster than BD).
I remember the days when Book Depository sent me books in just a few days. I haven’t used them in years and I’m sorry to hear their delivery speed has slowed down so much.
Do you think I would like this book, Sunita?
@Janine: Yes, I think you would. It’s not perfect but it’s out of the ordinary in good ways. And I like that it doesn’t feel over-massaged like a lot of hyped debuts in lit fic.
I had an ARC of this, so like you, I started at 5pm the other night and finished by bedtime. I found it to be really enjoyable, but thought that it didn’t fully come together for me. It’s a great debut – I look forward to seeing what she writes next!
@Cathy: I agree; I think I’m so enthusiastic because it was more than I was expecting. But it had some ambiguities and loose ends that didn’t feel intentional, or at least didn’t quite work for me.
I also put this off reading this book as well (took it out of the library twice and renewed both times) — because I wasn’t really sure I wanted to read a book about a serial killer and enabler (even if for once it was the men that were being killed). Finally read the library’s digital copy (so 5th time was the charm) and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It definitely wasn’t perfect (at times it felt a bit shaggy), but I really enjoyed the author’s confident voice and the sisters’ totally bizarre, but totally believable relationship. I thought it was a terrific first book and am really curious what Braithwaite will write next.
I can’t believe that I’ve actually read a Booker list book before the list came out — that hasn’t happened in a long while.
It was a strange sibling relationship, wasn’t it? But it rang true. Braithwaite really nailed the “take care of the younger one” dynamic, and Ayoola was portrayed in a way that made you want things to work out for her, if only for Korede’s sake.
One thing about reading the litfic discussions, at least for me, is that there are fewer surprises when the prize lists come out, which is both good and bad.