My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

my sister

Don’t be put off by the title of this brief but powerful debut novel. I myself hesitated, wondering if it would be sardonic humor or a grotesque butchers’ ball, but was persuaded to read it by one of my book clubs. I’m glad I did!

This is the story of two sisters. In the first chapter Korede, our narrator, gets a call from her younger sister, the beautiful and pampered Ayoola, asking for Korede’s help in cleaning up after her latest murder. This is the third one, leading Korede to note that her sister has now met the definition of a serial killer.

Not that Ayoola believes she’s a murderer. No, these are boyfriends who threatened her in some way and she pulled her knife in self-defense. The knife was their abusive father’s proudest possession which Ayoola helped herself to after their father’s untimely death.

Despite the title and this first chapter, the story is very much grounded in Korede’s everyday life. It’s more about family dynamics and personal worldviews than about violence. As one person in my book club said, “. . . there are rich veins to mine when you take ordinary, commonplace conflicts and amplify them to the extreme.”

So far from resenting her sister’s favored status, Korede has made it her mission to protect Ayoola, though of course we only get this through Korede’s eyes so she could be deceiving herself or us. But the crisis comes when the handsome young doctor at the hospital where Korede works, the doctor she has been trying to attract, catches sight of her irresistable sister. Should she warn him? Or will she continue to enable her sister?

The Nigerian author is also a poet, so it’s not surprising that she brings a poet’s use of compression and white space to this novel. What is astonishing is how effective it is. Each short chapter burns with purpose. There are no subplots or plot layers to distract us. Characters other than her sister and the young doctor are not presented as complex, which makes sense because we see them only through Korede’s eyes and she is focused, laser-like, on the two of them. As another person in my book club said, “For that reason [her succinct prose], the story delivered a sense of smooth, inexorable movement toward its resolution.”

Korede’s deadpan voice gives us her character: practical, straight-forward, a little OCD about cleaning. Eventually we begin to question her reliability. Was the father’s death an accident? Isn’t her protectiveness toward Ayoola laced with some other emotions? Does she care more about the idea of protecting her sister than for Ayoola herself?

There is good, if understated, use of symbolism and setting. Korede keeps coming back to the idea of the third bridge under which the sisters disposed of the body in the first chapter. The bridge isn’t described; it’s more the idea of it. I’ve mentioned the knife as a symbol, but there are others, such as the use of flowers and the bleach Korede uses to clean up the blood.

There are glimpses throughout the novel of conditions in Nigeria, such as an interaction with the blatantly corrupt police at one point, or the accepted patriarchal system. Also, a third person in my book club mentioned that “ . . . there’s a whole genre of Nigerian films that feature over-the-top, comedic violence, with the strength of the family prevailing in the end.” This idea gives me a different perspective on the novel and how it fits within its cultural context. From within my own context, though, I saw the humor but concentrated on the co-dependency of the sisters and Korede’s ethical dilemma.

Expanding further, while ostensibly about the relationship between the two sisters, the story can also be read as a comment on today’s inequality: the gap between the pampered one-percenters, so entitled that they can lie, abuse and rape with impunity, and the rest of us, beaten down by the treadmill of getting by while we labor to provide their goods and services. Since they pay almost nothing in taxes, with miniscule tax rates and generous offshore hideaways, the tax burden is left to us.

However you read this story, you’ll find much to think about and discuss with friends.

What would you recommend as a good book club choice?

Storm Track, by Margaret Maron

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Although I like mysteries and I like to read a series in order, I avoided Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott books at first. Mostly this was because of their being set in North Carolina, a place familiar to me but paling in comparison to other mysteries set in Yorkshire, Quebec, Venice, etc. However, the idea of a woman judge as the main character intrigued me, so I dove in. As this is the seventh in the series, you can tell that I’m enjoying them.

In this book, a series of hurricanes are bearing down on Colleton County, far enough inland that they don’t usually suffer much damage. Deborah’s ruling in a divorce case comes back to haunt her when a woman’s body is found at the Orchid Motel, clad in black lace underwear. Lynn Bullock, wife of an up-and-coming attorney was known for having many affairs, so suspicion focuses on her former (and current?) lovers. Among the suspects are Deborah’s own cousin.

As the threat of Hurricane Fran increases, various liaisons come to light for Deborah. Remarkably, they are treated without judgment, but rather a sympathy for all parties. Suspense ratchets up along with the storm. Then the killer strikes again.

One of the things I like about these books is the equal real estate given to African-American characters. Unlike so many books that depict only white characters, Maron’s stories matter-of-factly present the diversity found in real life. And as in reality, while there are friendships and collegial relationships between the races, there are also tensions and distrust.

Another thing I like about this series is Deborah’s family. Her father, the patriarch of the family, was notorious as a bootlegger and political insider, grows in complexity with each book in the series. She is the youngest, with twelve older brothers and half-brothers, some old enough that their children are her contemporaries.

Independent and strong-willed, Deborah occasionally chafes at their casual assumption of care for her—turning up with a kerosene lantern for her, as if she hadn’t laid in her own supplies, for example. Yet, they are there with a tractor when needed, or hosting a family get-together. I love when they turn up, each so different yet a comfortable and enduring presence.

An exciting mystery that plumbs the secrets of a small town, this book really shines in its sensitive depiction of relationships—between friends or lovers, between races, between parents and children. Plus it has an outstanding description of living through a hurricane. I’m thrilled that there are many more books in this series for me to explore.

Have you read any of Maron’s books? Which is your favorite?

Guardian’s Betrayal, by Johanna Van Zanten

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“Reader, I married him.” How many stories end like Jane Eyre’s with the happy lovers overcoming all odds to be together? There are also many stories of parentless children—orphans, foster children—that end happily with them finally being adopted. But what happens next? The story may end there, but life doesn’t.

Subtitled What Happens Seven Years After Adoption?, Van Zanten’s new novel explores new territory. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect, sisters Shayla and Abby were adopted by their social worker Bernice Harrison when their mother died. With her background, Bernice was well-equipped to help the girls and her own family, husband Tom and two young sons, adjust to their new family. However, as the story opens, seven years later, cracks are beginning to emerge.

Shayla, now 17, is already suffering from a lack of self-confidence when she gets a message on Facebook from the half-sister she’d forgotten existed. Excited to learn more about her birth family, the two talk often and Anna offers to put Shayla in touch with her birth father.

The story is narrated in the alternating voices of Shayla, Bernice and Tom. Each is struggling to stay above water. Shayla is navigating the terrors of adolescence: mean girls, first love, self-doubt. Sensing that his family is drifting away, Tom becomes involved in an affair with a much younger co-worker. Bernice finds herself suddenly a single parent of four children while trying to juggle Shayla’s problems and the other three children’s dismay at Tom’s defection.

Adding Shayla and Abby’s birth father to the mix strains Bernice even further, as she tries to decide whether or how to allow the girls to meet him. Abby, now 13, is not interested, but Shayla desperately wants him to be part of her life. Tom is dismayed at the thought of this man taking his place.

It’s a good story, and an important one. Van Zanten writes with authority and compassion for all of them. I appreciate her even-handed approach. There are a few times when the dialogue tips slightly into social-worker-ese, but for the most part is authentic.

Small errors, such as typos or a missing word, detract from the story. Occasionally the pronoun references are unclear, such as an extended scene where Shayla is referred to almost exclusively as “she” with nothing to show that it is Shayla and not either Bernice or Abby who are also present. These minor problems could have been caught by an editor or other outside reader, a good reason for writers to be part of a critique group or have beta readers.

With this unusual and emotional story, Van Zantan reminds me of how helpful it can be for writers to find a new area to explore. Of course, a good writer can make even the most common plot feel new again, but how exciting to find something so original! Anyone with an interest in family dynamics or adoption will enjoy this story.

Have you read a novel with an unusual subject lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

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My library puts a slip of paper in books where people who’ve checked out the book can rate it. When I took out this book, I saw that three gave it top marks and one hated it. Me, I loved it.

Obviously, this quiet story is not for everyone. Lucy herself is the narrator, telling us about a time in the 1980s when she was in the hospital for nine weeks and her mother came to stay with her for five days. From the start we wonder what is wrong with her that she must be in the hospital for so long and why this is the first time Lucy has seen her mother in years, since Lucy and William’s marriage in fact.

Over the course of the five days, Lucy’s mother relates gossip from home, mostly of marriages that did not end well. Lucy’s thoughts wander over the years, touching on her brutal childhood when the family’s poverty was so great that they lived in an unheated garage with no running water and she was locked in her father’s truck while her parents were at work. She tells us about her life in New York City with her husband and daughters, though not—she insists—about her marriage.

It’s Lucy’s voice that made me fall in love with this book. Like her mother, whose voice Lucy describes as “shy, but urgent”, Lucy tells us of these things calmly, leaving us to infer the desperation underneath. Telling details—a memory of her father’s hand on the back of her head, hiding a magazine from the doctor for fear it makes her seem “trashy”, her near-envy of people with AIDS because they seem part of a community—reveal what lies beneath her surface calm.

Even the title reflects Lucy’s calm, matter-of-fact tone.

Lucy tells us how happy she is to see her mother and reassures us that she loves her mother, but the two of them shy away from anything too personal. Their relationship is at the core of the book. As in Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Lucy’s love for her mother and apparent lack of self-pity make the book glow. She recognises that their love for each is an “imperfect love”, as Sarah Payne says. Payne is an author who, in occasional encounters, gives Lucy advice on writing that become life lessons.

In addition to the voice, what I admire most as a writer is the way Strout releases information. Among the themes of imperfect love and family is the theme of reticence. There is so much that Lucy does not say. Sarah Payne, too, is criticised as a writer who shies away from telling everything, from digging too deeply.

The story seems to ramble haphazardly, but when I went back and looked more closely, I could see how well crafted it is. The seeming randomness actually follows traditional narrative structure.

Also, things are mentioned without explanation, such as Lucy’s fear of snakes or her friend telling her to be ruthless. Then, later, we learn a bit more, and then perhaps another bit. We are never told everything, but we are told enough. As one person in my book club said, every single thing in this book has to be there.

Recently, I was thinking that I had lived in my most recent home for 17 years—which seemed like no time at all—when I was surprised to realise that 17 years was the length of my childhood. When I left for college at 17, I shook off my family and began to create my life, just as Lucy did when she married and left home. Yet those few childhood years exert a power as great as that of all the decades that followed.

In the end, though, what I treasure most in this story is the perception that it’s not so much a matter of forgiving parents, but rather a recognition that the love is there, an imperfect love, but love nonetheless.

Have you read a quiet book that turned out to be unexpectedly powerful?