My 20 books has got off to a slow start. The distractions of 800 pages of a SF classic for book group, an impulse re-read and the review pile for summer suddenly growing with moved dates – that’s my excuse. But I am 2 in, just 18 to go!
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Even if you’ve never seen Pulp Fiction, you may remember the fixer, Mr Wolf, as played by Harvey Keitel from the Direct Line TV ads from a few years ago! (a bit of a comedown for Keitel surely? – but if Kevin Bacon does it….). Tarantino’s Winston Wolf is the man you call to clean up after a murder. Korede, the narrator of this novel is Mr Wolf’s equivalent – clearing up after her sister Ayoola, who has formed a habit of dispatching of her boyfriends, and with Korede’s help, getting away with it!
Korede and Ayoola may be sisters, but they are absolute opposites. Ayoola is the beautiful one who influences rather than have a conventional job, doted on by their mother, a magnet to men. Korede is the plain, dutiful, hardworking one, a nurse, hoping for a promotion. Korede worships one of the doctors, Tade, taking small steps to build up a friendship hoping it’ll turn to romance – but then her sister meets Tade, who of course, falls for her. Korede wants to keep him alive! But she can’t tell him her of her sister’s prediliction for murder; instead she confides all in Muhtar, a patient in a coma, visiting him daily and pouring out all her worries about her sister. But will Muhtar remember any of this when he comes round?
Interspersed with Korede’s narration in the present are scenes from the girls’ childhood with their awful disciplinarian father who kept a knife in his drawer; it had been given to him by a sheik, or by a colleague whose life he saved – the story changes to fit.
Ayoola inherited the knife from him (and by “inherited”I mean she took it from his possessions before his body was cold in the ground). It made sense that she would take it–it was the thing he was most proud of.
I really enjoyed this novel. I loved the short snappy sentences, the short chapters with their key-word titles like “Bleach” and “Mascara”. I especially loved the dark humour. Debut novels can tend to cram too much in, and Braithwaite should be applauded for keeping things simple and direct. I loved Korede’s grumpiness, her jobsworth attitude at work, her dutiful keeping house for her mother and sister to hold their family together – she (and to a lesser extent Ayoola) are wonderful characters.
Regardless of whether you think this novel deserves all the prize nominations it has garnered, it is a total breath of fresh air. Readable in one sitting, always keeping you wondering how things will pan out, I loved it, and look forward to reading whatever Oyinkan Braithwaite writes next. (9/10)
Source: Own copy. Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (Atlantic) paperback 2019, 240 pages including an interview with the author.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
It was about time that I read the 2017 Booker winner (amongst many other Booker winners on my shelves. NB: I’m saving The Luminaries for another time!). Saunders’s novel is a definite ‘marmite’ book – you’ll love it or hate it. I loved it with some small reservations.
Lincoln in the Bardo tells of the plight of the soul of young Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, who died of a fever on the night of a big party at the White House. His body is laid to rest temporarily in its ‘sick box’ in a tomb at the cemetery, where Willie’s spirit finds himself in limbo – the Tibetan ‘bardo’. The story takes place over the course of one night, as Lincoln mourns and the other souls in limbo gather to help Willie on his way, and get in each other’s way. That’s essentially it plot-wise, and Saunders takes his time to unfold the events over the book’s 340 or so pages in hardback. However, Saunders does it in a unique style.
The story is told in a myriad of voices, presented in an almost theatrical script style. There are two distinct strains within that – the corporeal and the spiritual. The corporeal: those present at the party and the critics and commentators of the day are quoted from their statements and publications – with full references, then ‘op cit‘ thereafter.
The spirits, all those other souls in the graveyard, a motley group, from whores to soldiers and everyone in between, are led by a trio who take it upon themselves to look after Willie: Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and The Reverend Everly Thomas. Their spirits present themselves as they died – Vollman was hit in the head and groin by a falling beam while naked. Willie describes him thus:
The other man (the one hit by a beam) Quite naked Member swollen to the size of Could not take my eyes off
It bounced as he
Body like a dumpling Broad flat nose like a sheep’s
Quite naked indeed
Awful dent in the head How could he walk around and talk with such a nasty–
As the story progresses, we discover more about the trio’s lives and demises, but their main concern is to protect young Willie’s spirit, to prevent him from being absorbed into the tomb ever to remain or stolen away by the spirits of young brides who swarm in the cemetery causing Lieutenant Cecil Stone to get rather riled.
A greeting Party of SHARD-lasses (Arrayed in the crude Smocks they Favor’d, falling off their Shoulders in deliberate Sluttiness) didst come forth to Grovel before me; but I had seen and Defeated their Ilk many times Before, & did now leave a generous Brown Turd for their Gift, and Retreated me Home, to await their Departure.
As you can see from the quotes above, this is a rather bawdy novel – I love the phrase ‘deliberate Sluttiness’ – and the characters all have their different ways of speaking, matching the times of their former lives, being buried at different times.
It is rare for each character to speak in extended monologues, although there are some of these. Most speeches are just a sentence or two – as in a play script. And just as in a play script, changing voice every few lines, keeps you on your toes to visualise what’s happening. Saunders doesn’t give us any stage direction at all. Thus, although the novel is hugely entertaining, often being very funny, sometimes being very sad, it is an intense book to read especially at first. I would have preferred that Saunders put the speaker’s voice at the top of their speech as in a conventional play script, instead it’s always written afterwards – along with any references. That did irritate me slightly, as I always looked below the speech first to see who was speaking, then read their words.
When I went to the Golden Booker Celebration in July 2018 (see my report here), Holly McNish had picked Lincoln in the Bardo as her Booker favourite of the 2010s. Fiona Shaw, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Geoffrey Streatfeild, performed a reading from the section where Lincoln visits the tomb as the three spirits watch on and commentate. This reading really brought the text to life and I can imagine that an audio version with more than one reader would be good fun (if you enjoy audiobooks).
Some of the characters, especially the corporeal ones, are presumably real – and Saunders blends fact with fiction seamlessly. He is also merciless on those reporting on Lincoln showing all the different degrees of spin put on the facts – they can’t even agree the colour of Lincoln’s eyes – ’twas ever thus! Lincoln himself never speaks directly, his speech is all reported by the others, and his grief is palpable through their eyes.
Lincoln in the Bardo was up against Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, another American book with a novel structure in the Booker shortlist, (plus Mohsin Hamid, Ali Smith, Fiona Mozley and Emily Fridlund). As much as I adored Auster’s ‘what if’ brick of a book and personally wished it had won, I can understand why Saunders won over the judges with his entertaining and audacious experiment. Highly recommended if you enjoy a challenge. (9/10)
Source: Own copy. George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, 2017) paperback, 368 pages.