Deliciously wicked crime fiction



By Oyinkan Braithwaite

Atlantic Books/Hardcover/226 pages/$20.95/ Books Kinokuniya

4 stars

Blood is thicker than water - and harder to get out of the carpet - in Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite's brilliant black comedy about two sisters, one who murders her way through her menfolk and the other who cleans up after her.

The narrator is long-suffering Korede, a nurse at a Lagos hospital whose life is perpetually being interrupted whenever her little sister Ayoola stabs another suitor in "self-defence".

When the book opens, Ayoola has just offed a third lover. Korede must abandon her dinner to dispose of the body and bleach her sister's crime out of existence.

Korede's drive to protect her sister no matter what is tested when Ayoola sets her sights on Tade, the handsome doctor on whom Korede has long nursed an unrequited workplace crush. Whether their affair ends in a happily-ever-after or a homicide, Korede loses.

At first blush, Korede and Ayoola seem to fall into a familiar binary for female characters - beautiful versus plain, ditzy versus sensible, "Bratz doll" versus "voodoo figurine", as Korede puts it.

But Braithwaite has an unerring knack for details that flesh out the complexities of sisterhood, where unreserved love can be inextricable from frustration and resentment.

It is the voice of Korede - competent, cynical - that really gives the novel its zing. There are gloriously funny moments of her snatching Ayoola's phone before she can Snapchat a meal or Instagram an outfit, forgetting her social media should be devoted to mourning her latest ex.

The book is not overtly feminist, but nevertheless, there are myriad glimpses of how women navigate a society that, for all its purported modernity, still places authority in men's hands.

In a scene when Korede is stopped by a traffic cop angling for a bribe, she winds down the window a few centimetres, "enough to prevent angering him, but not enough for his hand to slip through and unlock the door", and adopts broken English to soothe his ego.

There is trauma in the sisters' past - their father was abusive, their mother battered and in denial. It would be easy to paint Ayoola as an avenging vigilante for womankind, hurting men before they inevitably hurt her, but Braithwaite never slips into this trope.

Ayoola is both painfully child-like and an insufferable narcissist. Killing is in her nature, and because society has created a facile narrative of women as victims, she is happy to assume it is always someone else's fault.

Deceptively simple and deliciously wicked, this is crime fiction that is a cut above the rest.

If you like this, read: Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018, $19.70, Books Kinokuniya), which inspired the BBC American television series Killing Eve (2018 to present). Villanelle, a glamorous psychopath who carries out assassinations for a shadowy global cabal, is pursued by MI5 agent Eve Polastri. The two women form a morbid attraction to each other.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2019, with the headline Deliciously wicked crime fiction. Subscribe