The Blurb On The Back:
When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in ‘self-defence’ and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other …
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The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Korede lives in Lagos with her younger sister Ayoola and their mother (their father having died several years earlier). She works as a nurse where she is known for her dedication, no-nonsense attitude and devotion to cleanliness.
However Korede has a hidden life that no one knows about: Ayoola has a nasty habit of killing her boyfriends “in self-defence” and asking Korede to help dispose of the bodies. Korede knows that her sister is dangerous, but family ties mean that she doesn’t want to inform on her to the police – not least because of the effect it will have on their mother.
Then Ayoola decides to start dating Korede’s colleague, Dr Tade Otumu, who Korede has long been in love with. Worried about Tade’s safety, Korede is desperate to warn him off but needs to do so in a way that doesn’t mean betraying her sister because doing so means betraying herself too …
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut literary thriller (long listed for the 2019 Booker Prize and shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction) is a tightly written, fast paced and enjoyable account of family ties, secret crushes and casual murder although the story itself is very thin and I was left unconvinced by Korede’s protective attitude towards the selfish, sociopathic Ayoola, Tade is underdeveloped and the ending was, for me, quite weak.
Korede is a really interesting protagonist – efficient and largely calm in a crisis, I enjoyed her take-charge attitude and, initially, could understand her protective attitude towards Ayoola. At the same time, Braithwaite gives Korede a sense of vulnerability through her crush on Tade, the handsome, competent doctor who the reader knows sees her as little more than a friend but from whom she desperately wants something more, which gives their early scenes a real sense of sadness.
Braithwaite also does a good job of showing the jealousy and sibling rivalry come out once Ayoola decides to deliberately make a play for Tade, knowing that like all men, all he’s interested in is her good looks and determined to prove the same to Korede. However, I really needed some kind of confrontation between Korede and Ayoola on this and while Braithwaite has set up Korede as the passive cleaner of her sister’s messes who never really confronts her on her ‘self-defence’ claims, this seemed to me to give Korede an opportunity to take a front foot in terms of having a meaningful conversation about it. Instead Korede’s passive resistance left me disappointed, not least because she doesn’t have any allies given that her mother is completely beholden to Ayoola such that her only confidant is Muhtar Yautai (a hospital patient currently in a coma, to whom she shares her secrets and concerns). As a result, although I understood the developments in the final quarter of the book, I did think that it left Korede a weaker character as a result. This disappointment is reinforced by the fact that the shallow Tade is clearly unworthy of her devotion given that, like every other man in the book, his attraction to Ayoola is purely physical. The lack of nuance did annoy me a little because it seemed like an artificial way of creating a split between the sisters but also seemed like a shallow view of men on the whole (who are all shown to be lazy or violent or amoral or bullying or hypocritical in this book).
Similarly Ayoola herself is quite a thin character. There are hints in the sisters’ back story as to why she is the way she is but nothing concrete and there’s certainly no self-reflection on her part as she is shown flitting from man to man without any apparent fear or thought of the potential consequences.
Despite the criticisms above, I did enjoy this book. The writing is crisp, the pacing works well and while the plot works to some predictable beats, the fact that some of these men probably had it coming, makes for a lot of fun while the questions Korede has about others lends a frisson of guilt and tension. On this basis, I would definitely check out what Braithwaite writes next.