Rating 4 stars
What do you do when your sister keeps killing her boyfriends? You become her Cleaner. This is the situation Korede finds herself in when her sister Ayoola kills three of her boyfriends on the trot.
Although the subject matter is very different, the style of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s novel reminded me of Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me and a little of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, particularly in the rhythms of Nigerian life and speech, and the differences between the male and female experience of society.
The novel opens with the aftermath of the third killing, with Korede calmly and efficiently coming to her sister’s rescue. All we know is that Ayoola and her boyfriend Femi have had a falling out and Ayoola has stabbed him. No mitigation is offered, no explanation other than sisterhood is given to explain Korede’s willingness to abet her sister in her crime. From Korede we get only information on how best to clean up the evidence and dispose of the body.
In the midst of sorting out her sister’s mess, Korede makes the following observation.
He looked like a man who could survive a couple of flesh wounds … It was a shame to think that death would whittle away at his broad shoulders and concave abs, until he was nothing more than bone.
So detached is Korede, that she is able to appraise the physical attributes of her sister’s dead boyfriend. It should be appalling, but it’s not. In the same way that Léon’s ruthless efficiency in Luc Besson’s film isn’t appalling, the way Korede goes about her work is somehow fascinating. All the more so when we learn that she’s a nurse.
As the story progresses, we learn that Korede is the practical, sensible, very particular sister who insists that a job is done well, who cooks for her sister and mother, who protects them from the dangers of the world. Ayoola is feckless, enabled by her beauty. In a society which prizes beauty in women far more highly than brains, Ayoola can do anything she likes. Korede, who has inherited her mother’s plain looks, has chosen the pursuit of excellence. Perhaps because when you are plain you can’t do anything you like, and are judged more harshly.
We discover that Ayoola’s weapon of choice in her boyfriend murders is inherited from the sisters’ dead father. For a long stretch of the book, all that we know is that he is dead, was a liar and a bully, and is never mentioned by Korede or her mother. He married the sisters’ mother because her father was a powerful politician. Gradually, we learn that he is the root of everything that happens and the reason that Korede must always be her sister’s Cleaner.
At work, we see Korede develop a crush on one of the doctors, Tade. We also see her confiding secrets in a comatose patient, who she believes is going to die.
As well as being dark, the book is also funny. Korede is witty and amusingly impatient with anyone (everyone) who doesn’t live up to her exacting standards. Braithwaite has written a comedy of errors in a way, with Ayoola’s vanity and lack of awareness about how the real world works setting up some nice tension with Korede’s need to be in control. The humour becomes bleaker when Ayoola’s crimes become a game of Cluedo with Ayoola daring her current boyfriend to work things out and Korede secretly hoping he does.
The darkness comes through family history and sisterly loyalty. Korede is trapped in a position set in childhood and both sisters are victims in different ways, dealing with past trauma in different ways. Ayoola continues down a path learned when she is 14. Korede seeks solace in a regimented life in which she can fool herself that she has control over her and Ayoola’s destiny.
This is a brilliant book, on the surface a pulp fiction thriller, but at heart a social commentary on the position of women in Nigerian society and on the corruption that exists in that nation’s government and business structures. It’s on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve read two of the shortlisted books this year and out of those two, I hope this one wins.