Although I love it when the title forms a sentence, no sisters and no serial killers will be harmed in this post (although perhaps they should be). We’ll be exploring the writerly lessons the Writer Unboxed Breakout Novel Dissection crew learned from Oyinkan Braithwaite’s breakout novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer (MSTSK). But first, something we appreciated as readers:
This novel is not about the serial killer.
It’s not about figuring out who the serial killer is, or whether she’ll get caught, if a particular victim will be found in time, or why she does what she does. At least one Dissector wasn’t going to read it until someone let slip that the novel is actually about the sister of the serial killer, about her moral choices and her change. This was a fresh enough concept that it felt like a relief–yet the novel itself was anything but a relief. It was full of tension. Which is a writerly lesson after all:
Take a trope and tell it slant.
That tip of the hat to Emily Dickinson provides a good segue to three things we thought Braithwaite did particularly well:
- The writing and plotting is tight and spare yet dense in the way that poetry is (which makes sense, since Braithwaite is also a poet).
- Braithwaite delivers the setting in deft slashes, giving us a rich picture of the main character’s social and cultural context, as well as her family situation.
- The ending is not uplifting yet it was still a satisfying read.
BND is a Facebook book club for writers; four times a year we choose a breakout novel to take apart using questions derived from Donald Maass’s craft books and mine it for insights we can use in our own fiction. Note that we cannot do so without revealing some spoilers. Read on at your own peril.
Tight and spare yet dense (in meaning)
MSTSK tells the story of Korede, the older, dutiful, plainer sister of the gorgeous Ayoola. Ayoola is the serial killer. This is not a spoiler because we learn it on the first page. The first page is also the first chapter, the entirety of which I will give you here:
Ayoola summons me with these words–Korede, I killed him.
I had hoped I would never hear those words again.
The next chapter is longer, but it’s only two and a half pages, the next one and half. The longest chapter I could find was four pages, each with a chapter title of only one or two words. Moira Stelmack said, “I’m so impressed by how Braithwaite compressed the story down to its essential elements and still gave it air or negative space.” Alisha Rohde was the Dissector who made the connection to Braithwaite as a poet:
“I’m not a bit surprised to read that Braithwaite also writes poetry. I feel like that kind of economy of language really carried over into this story: not poetry in the lyrical sense (although occasionally she’s got an amazing turn of phrase), but poetry in the dense meaning sense.”
Braithwaite packs a lot into those short chapters. Korede is educated, a nurse in a hospital who is about to be promoted to head nurse. She is, essentially, the head of her home: her father is dead (good riddance), her mother is ineffectual, and Ayoola is an Instagram influencer and serial killer of men she dates. Korede is a Cleaner: she’s the one who cleans up after Ayoola’s murders, she’s the one who cleansed their house of the father’s presence after his death, and she’s the only nurse who still wears white scrubs because she’s the only one who can keep them sparkling clean. Her compartmentalized worlds of home and hospital come into conflict when the doctor Korede is secretly and painfully in love with starts dating Ayoola. How can she protect him without outing her sister and therefore herself? Does her respect for him change how she sees Ayoola’s usual story about her murdered boyfriends?
The novel is told in first person present tense from Korede’s point of view. She’s a precise thinker, a lover of order and cleanliness, and that comes through in her voice and in what she notices. But it results in secondary characters who are barely more than two-dimensional. All secondary characters and subplots serve the main story arc: will Korede break free and take a chance at an independent life or will she remain Ayoola’s cleaner?
Barbara Morrison spoke for many of us when she said, “The brevity and simplicity of the story were part of its charm, yet I couldn’t help wanting to know more about the mother and wanting the co-workers to be a little more complex.” Even so, we appreciated how focused this made the story. John Kelley said,
“Very succinct writing. You get everything you need as a reader. I felt like I could picture their world, the characters and the situations; but the narrative never once drifted. For that reason, the story delivered a sense of smooth, inexorable movement toward its resolution.”
Julie Barker noted how the focus affected the pace: “The spare writing, with no excess words, gives us a world in brief. Each short chapter has a place in unfolding the story. In addition, Braithwaite sets a fast pace that seems never to let up.”
World in brief
This brings us to Braithwaite’s skill in putting the reader in a very specific time and place using brief vignettes. The story takes place in contemporary Lagos, Nigeria. We see the society and Korede’s place in it, limited by her culture and by her decisions, in deft strokes. In one four-page scene (so long!) Korede is stopped by the police in a traffic jam:
On a normal day, I would fight him, but I cannot draw attention to myself right now, not while I’m driving the car that transported Femi to his final resting place. My mind wanders to the ammonia blemish in the boot…. Educated women anger men of his ilk, and so I try to adopt broken English, but I suspect my attempt betrays my upbringing even more.
Jan O’Hara appreciated this scene: “That scene, more than anything, helped me understand that she’s in a dog-eat-dog world, at least as far as she is concerned. It’s that old conundrum of being unsafe without education and power, and then being unsafe because of education and power while being female.” Later, in another scene with the police, Korede chooses to show her education and power: “When I was picking my outfit, I chose a light gray skirt suit. It is solemn, feminine, and a subtle reminder that the police and I are not from the same social class.”
We understand her family’s financial situation and a bit of the character of her father through 3 sentences:
If I could have gotten rid of the house itself, I would have. But he had built our southern-style home from scratch, which meant no rent and no mortgage (besides, no one was interested in acquiring a home of that size, when the paperwork for the land it was built on was dubious at best). So instead of moving into a smaller apartment, we managed the maintenance costs of our grand, history-rich home as best we could.
Each setting vignette shows how Korede is stuck in a variety of ways. Her previously compartmentalized worlds of home and hospital keep twisting and tightening around her until she is forced to decide. As Ayoola challenges her, “You can’t sit on the fence forever.”
We’ll be freely talking about the ending here, so if you don’t want to know it, stop reading.
At the beginning of the novel, Korede thinks of herself as having a moral compass, in contrast to her father and her sister. She’s in love with a handsome and kind doctor, and has hopeful daydreams of him noticing her. She has a notebook she bought to record one happy thing per day–but she uses it to record the details of Ayoola’s murders, which is decidedly unhappy. In many ways, the novel is a fight for Korede’s soul.
I am sad to say that Ayoola wins. At the end, Korede chooses her sister’s point of view, that men are pitiful creatures who only want a pretty face and won’t see anything else once they see said pretty face. Korede chooses to defend Ayoola, even though she knows that the doctor she had loved didn’t do anything to “deserve” what Ayoola did to him.
Jan O’Hara pointed us to Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid to show that this a Disillusionment Plot:
“The Disillusionment story is about the protagonist’s shift in worldview from belief to disillusionment. The protagonist begins with an optimistic or positive view of some aspect of life and ends with a negative or pessimistic view of it…. The Core Emotion the reader or viewer seeks from a Disillusionment story is a feeling of loss or pity for the protagonist whose belief has been eroded.”
Indeed, when Korede sheds the last opportunity for a future without being her sister’s cleaner, it’s so sad. The novel ends with her greeting Ayoola’s latest man at the door of the house and smiling. Julie Barker said this:
“When I first read the book, I read this last page as a fulfillment of the story’s promise. When I reread the last few chapters just now, these last lines seem heartbreaking.”
Heartbreaking, but a satisfying read.
One of the questions we always ask, straight from Donald Maas, is “Does the novel contain moments where ‘the story soars above itself and awes or inspires in some way?'” and we could only think of two, both backstory moments in the girls’ childhood, when Korede stood with or saved Ayoola from their father. Besides those two briefly rendered scenes, all scenes serve to dig Korede deeper.
We were compelled towards the ending, and were immersed strongly enough in this tale that we wondered about the characters after the action of the novel, which is one mark of a successfully-told story. Jan O’Hara said, “While I don’t see Korede as ever committing an act of violence herself, I can see her developing a grudge against someone in the future and bringing said someone to Ayoola’s attention for a ‘correction.'”
My Sister, the Serial Killer delivers good lessons for writers if you want to:
- explore how to use white space, short chapters, tight plotting, and spare writing to increase the pace of your novel;
- see how to build an effective setting using very brief vignettes;
- read an excellent example of a negative story arc that is still satisfying.
Farewell for now
WU friends, I am sorry to say that the Breakout Novel Dissection Facebook group is going on indefinite hiatus. In the last several years, we have Dissected 21 novels in a dozen difference genres, gleaning insights that have, I am sure, improved our writing. It only took a few Dissections for us to stop being surprised that every novel had at least one glaring instance of NOT falling in line with one (or more) of Maass’s breakout characteristics, which was encouraging: you don’t have to do every single thing very well, but you do have to do what *you* do extremely well.
Our dissections were at times lively and entertaining, and always informative. Still, interest and participation slid in the last couple of years. Perhaps we will start up again in the future. But for now, farewell.
Have you read My Sister, the Serial Killer? Do you have anything to add? Anyone want to talk about Muhta, the unconscious confidante (a play on the blind seer trope)? Are there other novels that make great use of white space?