The darkly comic events of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel unfold as briskly as a classic noir, but with a contemporary tone in a setting unfamiliar to many American readers: modern-day Lagos, Nigeria.
Our narrator is the prickly Korede, a highly regarded but unpopular nurse at a Lagos hospital. Lonely, she confides her dreams and secrets to a coma patient in her ward. But one of her secrets could have dangerous repercussions: Korede’s charming younger sister, Ayoola, has murdered three of her boyfriends. She hasn’t been caught—yet—because Korede meticulously cleans up after her. After they dispose of the most recent victim, Ayoola drops by Korede’s hospital for a visit. When Korede’s doctor crush, Tade, is instantly smitten by her sister’s beauty, Korede must decide what to do. Should she intervene? Or let her sister’s madness take Tade’s life as well?
Unassuming, self-assured and with an infectious laugh, Braithwaite explains her style in a call to her home in Lagos. “I’ve always been drawn to dark subject matter,” she says. “One of my first stories took place in the woods and was told from the point of view of the trees and plants, observing as a girl wandered into a clearing and then killed herself. To me, it was a wildly romantic tale of nature and a beautiful stranger walking to her death. But my parents were concerned and thought maybe I’d experienced a trauma they didn’t know about. I was completely oblivious to what was upsetting them—I thought something was wrong with them!”
For My Sister, the Serial Killer, it’s no surprise Braithwaite had a “black widow” motif on her mind. “I’ve always been fascinated by black widow spiders and the idea of women killing their mates,” she says. This darkness is balanced by Korede’s matter-of-fact, almost deadpan observations and the author’s sly, skillful wit—but it is the interdependence of the two sisters that brings a more sinister tone. The reader learns about the sisters’ childhood, their abusive, now deceased father and the mother who failed to protect them. It’s easy to wonder if the sisters’ twisted connection has roots in their father’s brutality and to speculate over what really caused his untimely death. But Braithwaite keeps some things a secret—even from herself. “It’s fun to keep it as much a mystery to me as it is to the reader,” she says. “I’ve come to terms with what I think happened, but I don’t know for sure.”
The sisters’ relationship is so complex that readers may wonder which sister is the heroine and which the villain—or if it’s even possible to discern between the two. Like femme fatales in a noir thriller, their machinations are so wild and engaging that it becomes easy to cheer them on. Braithwaite agrees, stating with her characteristic laugh, “I suppose they are villains, I mean, they are killers. But honestly, I just found them adorable.”
The novel is also notable for its melding of the thriller genre with satirical commentary on beauty and femininity. “This may be a Nigerian thing, but people are very outspoken here about looks,” Braithwaite says.
“With my sister and I, people feel free to let us know which of the two of us they think is more attractive all the time, saying, ‘Oh, you were the fine one before, I don’t know what happened, but your sister is the more attractive one now.’ I imagine Korede and Ayoola and how after years of hearing something like this, they couldn’t help but be affected by it.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by black widow spiders and the idea of women killing their mates.”
In a novel filled with references to Instagram and social media, Braithwaite also drew inspiration from internet culture—and the way “beautiful people” are treated both in real life and online. “Did you ever hear about ‘Prison Bae’?” the author asks, referring to Jeremy Meeks, a convicted felon whose mug shot went viral on Facebook. “People were going crazy about him because he was so good-looking. . . . I don’t think people even cared what crimes he committed. People were willing to excuse anything because of his good looks.”
The disconnect between the chaos of real life and the online presentation of an attractive, curated life gives the novel a crisp, up-to-the minute appeal. “I am fascinated by the facetiousness of social media,” Braithwaite admits. “It almost feels like people go out of their way to create an online life that isn’t even remotely true. I think it’s dangerous.”
So is the case with the two sisters. Some of the novel’s most humorous moments are when Ayoola needs to be constantly reminded to not post selfies with her new boyfriend immediately after her previous boyfriend (deceased and disposed of) has disappeared.
Braithwaite’s references to social media are so seamless that it’s a surprise to know she grappled with including them. “It felt so new and different,” she says. “I was hesitant at first. I grew up on the great books—my favorite novel is Jane Eyre, and obviously none of [those books] had social media in them. I don’t know, it almost seemed unrefined. But once I got into it, I realized how well it helped tell the story.”
With the movie rights already sold, My Sister, the Serial Killer is poised to be a big hit, but Braithwaite is quick to admit that a skyrocketing career was not what she was expecting. “I always wanted to be an author, and there were so many ways I imagined it would go,” she says. “I was a little bit scared when things started to happen so quickly with this book. It doesn’t seem quite right, almost like I skipped a few steps. But I’m so grateful at the way everything has turned out.”
Author photo by Studio 24.