by Theophina Gabriel
My Sister, The Serial Killer teaches us that in a wold hyper-focused on image, beauty is currency. The comma after Sister in the title separates the relation between the two titles, just as Korede (our main character) manages to separate the moral distinction between her sister and the unethical murders her sister enacts, by continuously covering them up. Through the exploration of this sisterly dynamic, Braithwaite manages to cover a broad range of themes from family ethics, family politics and pride, to colourism and ways in which women subvert the patriarchy. It centres on the concept of family secrets, which all masterfully manifest into a tension that spans the entire length of the book.
Braithwaite’s crime fiction masterpiece follows the story of Korede, the responsible and long-suffering older sister to Ayoola, a serial killer in serious denial of her murderous ways to everyone including, it seems, herself. Ayoola is a perfect balance of self-absorbed independence and careless selfishness. A habitual liar, she is only unflinchingly honest when it comes to one topic: men. She covers up her murders, even lying to herself Korede notes, but when it comes to seeing straight though men, she speaks the truth with sharp perception, ‘He isn’t deep. All he wants is a pretty face. That’s all they ever want.’ In contrast the truth seems to be a particular blind sport for Korede, whether wilfully forced or not. Korede’s compulsion to clean carries all the characterisation of a Lady Macbeth as she continues to cover up her younger sisters crime scenes. The folding, bleaching and scrubbing while appearing comforting to Korede, betrays an indicator of just how much she battles for control, but just like the constantly gathering dirt, her conscience can never remain clean for long. As the book develops we begin to see strains of a toxic co-dependent relationship. Korede’s need for restorative control in every element of her life, coupled with the constant mess her sister makes. In covering up for her sister however Korede actually concede’s control and accountability, allowing for the cycle to repeat itself. Her sister may be the serial killer but Korede is her enabler. Braithwaite pushes this element of morality versus family ties. If she were your sister, what would you do?
If she were your sister, what would you do?
This question would be valid if their sisterly relationship was mutually loving. However, we see Ayoola only manifest her loyalty to Korede when she sees fit, whereas Korede is constantly picking up the pieces Ayoola leaves behind. Ayoola also completely disregards or chooses to ignore Korede’s feelings when she takes the man of her sister’s dreams, Tade, for the sake of it, flaunting a relationship that means nothing to her in front of her sisters’ face. This is an important theme in Ayoola’s list of conquests both dead and alive, when she makes the comment about all men just wanting a pretty face, what she doesn’t seem to realise is that the comment reflects outwards as well as in. In the same breath while berating the shallow fixation that men have with beauty, Ayoola also betrays her own consumerist mentality, thereby again avoiding accountability for her place in the transactional power dynamic she is playing. In this way Ayoola seems to be acutely aware about everything except for herself and her actions. Embodying narcissism and individualism in every element, Ayoola becomes a wonderful metaphor for the supposed ‘destruction’ of patriarchal power, even if she does become a tool of it by doing so. She uses her light skin privilege and natural beauty to level the playing field in terms of economic power and autonomy. However, these are trivial symbols of true power and Braithwaite lets us know this as she depicts the male patriarchal shadow that is cast so long in both sisters’ lives, their father, and the men Ayoola kills haunt them even in death.
The way colourism is explored during the novel serves as important reminder of the way in which colourist prejudices can bend familial structures and facilitate internalised hatred. Even though their mother looks more like Korede than the lighter Ayoola, it is Ayoola who is given influential power within the family regarding beauty regulation. Her mother only perks up when Ayoola tells her she looks good and so Korede’s mother uses her daughter’s participation in societal standards of beauty in order to gain the self-esteem it has taken from her. This privilege of societal notions of beauty bleed into lack of accountability that Ayoola presents.
Preconceived notions of beauty are, Braithwaite asserts, not only a currency, but a commodity in high demand, and while it can take you so far (see Ayoola’s preferential treatment when she eventually does get caught trying to stab her current boyfriend), none can ever remained unscathed (Ayoola is eventually stabbed herself). Beauty may be currency in this story as it so often reflects in real life, but as long as the whole system is rooted in the assignment of worth or treatment based on looks, it is a patriarchy under which all suffer.
My Sister, The Serial Killer attempts to tackle this thematic notion head on in that it follows the position of Ayoola’s supposed subversion of that currency into physical dominance, an area generally only populated by the masculine in relationships. However, the consequences are near fatal, and to operate like this while dismantling the system never liberates anyone, it further enslaves her sister to her actions. By weaponising her looks, Ayoola further attributes that standard of beauty to power, at the expense of her sister who is further marginalised by her actions, but ultimately chooses to continue to pick up the pieces – showing her own complicity in the system. With her wonderfully cyclical ending Braithwaite emphasis that we cannot choose how we look, what face or skin tone we are born with, but we can choose how to treat other, how much toxicity we allow into our lives, and how much self-denial or acceptance we gorge ourselves with. The truth is there, even if – just like Ayoola’s killings – we’d rather not linger on it for too long.
This review originally featured in the CRIME issue of Bad Form, now available from our website and some excellent magazine retailers.