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Siblinghood and the Psychology of Trauma Oyinkan Braithwaite's My Sister, the Serial Killer

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer uses the expansiveness of the prose form to ask, ‘how far can we go for people we love?’

Entertaining but dark, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, enthrals readers with its wit, its refreshing narrative style and its refusal to be conditioned by Nigeria’s moral lenses. This debut depicts pain in its different forms and examines family ties in a web of murders. Korede, a nurse and carer bound by medical ethics, is an accomplice in the murders her sister, Ayoola, commits. Braithwaite’s novel bears emotions through its major characters’ actions. Braithwaite renders these actions in a uniquely impassive voice, one through which she provides an exposition on patriarchy and a reflection of the psychological implications of abuse. Braithwaite’s is a language that softens crime and hers are major characters carefully embedded with reason.

Against Korede’s wishes, the words came again: ‘Korede, I killed him.’ Korede, Braithwaite’s protagonist and narrative voice, emerges first in this fast-paced novel. Ayoola had just killed another boyfriend, with the knife she inherited from their father. Bleach, ‘masks the smell of blood,’ and Korede, once again, cleans the murder scene. It is the third time, we learn, that she has had to do this for her sister. The strength and the sacrificial nature of siblinghood pervades this breathtaking novel. Of Ayoola, Korede declares: ‘She will always have me and I will always have her’.

While the familial bond is prominent in Braithwaite’s novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer is also a novel about melancholy, and a kind of melancholy peculiar to a nuclear family where infidelity, the absence of mutual respect, patriarchy and abuse take centre-stage. Kehinde, the sisters’ depraved father, is Braithwaite’s vehicle for the psychological implications of abuse. In the plot, Kehinde is the source of Ayoola’s insecurity and criminal urges, and explains why, according to Korede, ‘Ayoola is inconsiderate and selfish and reckless, but her welfare is and always has been my responsibility.’

Readers learn that the only form of affection Kehinde showed his daughters was the tenderness he put into cleaning his treasured knife. A fraudulent businessman, Kehinde gained success passing off refurbished cars as brand new. Duplicitous, a pimp with no marked limit, Kehinde is a violent man, who inflicts both physical and mental abuse on his wife and daughters. Ayoola and Korede share in this struggle, in a traumatic past. But because Braithwaite envelops the sisters in dark humour, they do not wallow in their struggles. Instead, their trauma fuels growth and action.

Braithwaite excels in depicting the influence of Kehinde on his daughters’ upbringing and their actions as adults. Without aiming for a grand narrative or stuffing the prose with political history as Nigerian novelists are often tempted, Braithwaite entertains. Braithwaite does provide a candid take on under-discussed social issues but in place of grand commentary about the government and public life, she looks inward and forces a reflection on the problems of the family, and how families can distort people’s lives.

Braithwaite touches on the importance of human psychology, especially the role of therapy and psychotherapists in lives touched by trauma. As Korede—who commits herself to covering Ayoola’s murders—grapples with guilt and fear, she wrestles the urge to talk to someone. Korede’s therapy, however, is a comatose patient, Muhtar Yautai, in Room 313 of the hospital where she works. Muhtar is the only witness in Korede’s complicated world, and ‘…plays the role of a great listener and a concerned friend.’ Braithwaite’s choice of an unconscious witness enjoys some credence in psychoanalysis. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, argued that ‘in the field of the unconscious the ears are the only orifice that cannot be closed.’ When Korede feels the desire to talk to someone about Ayoola’s crimes or her search for affection, she talks to Muhtar. And when Muhtar recovers with a recollection of Korede’s confessions, he is validated by Lacan’s claim.

With an intriguing, inviting title, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a remarkable feat. Braithwaite’s debut uses the expansiveness of the prose form to ask, ‘how far can we go for people we love?’ In showing the importance of companionship, therapy and confession, My Sister, the Serial Killer does not downplay how trauma shapes people nor the ruinous implications of male chauvinism. Complemented by its moderate dialogue and humorous narration, this captivating debut reads quick but will surely leave imprints of its excellence and simplicity in the minds of its readers for a long time

My Sister, the Serial Killer
Oyinkan Braithwaite.
Doubleday.
240 pages.