In May, an anonymous employee at the Waterstones’ bookstore in Uxbridge, London, went on a Twitter rant about why men don’t read women. “I have worked here for a very long time. In all that time, never has a woman said to me, ‘I don’t read books written by women.’ But at least once or twice a month, a man says that he will not read books by a female author. Men are ridiculous creatures." Immediately, there was a not-all-men backlash, with men protesting that they did read women.
Do they? It’s been over 170 years since the Brontës pretended to be men to sell their books. But lists of top novels are still dominated by men. In September 2015, The Guardian published a controversial list of the top 100 novels, whose writer Robert McCrum took two years to come up with it. Only 21 were by women. In the same year, novelist Nicola Griffith analysed the last 15 years of literary prize winners and found that books about women are less likely to win prizes, probably because they are stereotyped as “domestic". In June, literary e-zine Lit Hub pointed out that 178 men had been shortlisted for the Man Booker since it began in 1969 as opposed to 113 women (now 114, with 2018 winner, Anna Burns). Thirty-five men have won the Man Booker, in contrast to 18 women. In India, men dominate the HT-Nielsen best-sellers list year after year.
Why should I read more women? I am often asked this by men. Don’t do us a favour. I always reply, “Because they are fun. Because women are writing some of the best books. Because women don’t get nearly as much attention as they deserve. Because, if you are losing interest in fiction, women are writing the best books in the genre." Sure, everyone should read what they want. But are you sure you know enough about what’s out there to make an informed choice?
This monthly series will point you towards books written by women which are simply: great reads. And you can’t have a more fun read than our first book: Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite’s delicious slasher-meets-noir My Sister, The Serial Killer, published in India last month. Who could resist a book about a woman cleaning up after her murderous sister, especially one who diligently googles to see how many murders you need to commit before you can be certified a serial killer? (The answer is three.)
Who: This is Braithwaite’s debut novel—and what a debut it is. The movie rights have already been snapped up by Working Title Films, the UK production house whose credits include Baby Driver and The Darkest Hour. Braithwaite, who formerly worked at a publishing house, says she was inspired by anime, and there is indeed a cartoonish feel to the novel, with its blithely funny violence. “I could never have imagined that My Sister, The Serial Killer would get this much attention," she says on email. “In my room, concocting this tale, I thought it a strange little story that would appeal to myself, and maybe 99 other peculiar individuals. Turns out the club of weird people is larger than I envisioned."
What: The novel begins with a banger of an opening line. “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood." Loyal Korede, a nurse who knows her cleaning agents, mops up the murders committed by her beautiful but psychopathic younger sister Ayoola. A constant fuss is made of Ayoola, while the plain Korede is expected to look after her sister at all costs. Things come to a head when Ayoola meets Tade, the handsome doctor that Korede has a crush on. Inevitably, he is smitten. And Korede finally has to make a choice.
Ayoola belongs up there in the list of memorable, coolly amoral villains, a Nigerian version of Amy in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Like many millennials, she is obsessed by Snapchat, shopping trips to Dubai, and cat videos. She has to be reminded not to post videos on Snapchat right after stabbing her latest lover. “How long am I meant to post boring, sad stuff?" she whines. Braithwaite’s prose is as sharp, sleek and pointed as the knife Ayoola wields. “He looked like a man who could survive a couple of flesh wounds, but so had Achilles and Caesar."
Braithwaite wanted to keep Ayoola an enigma, a killer who does things just because she can. “I very much inhabited Korede’s point of view, so most of the time I only knew what Korede was privy to. Korede never fully understands the ‘why’. It isn’t particularly important to her, she will love and protect Ayoola regardless. Ayoola describes herself as a victim and has certainly experienced trauma, but her actions come from a place of recklessness and derision as opposed to a place of pain," says Braithwaite.
Why read it: To begin with, My Sister is super short—just over 200 pages—the kind of frothy concoction you devour in an afternoon. But it’s also more than a quick guilty pleasure.
Braithwaite is careful not to overload her pacey read with explanations of the sisters’ behaviour. But there are intriguing hints at the dark undercurrents of a society where women are worthless if they are not beautiful. “He isn’t deep. All he wants is a pretty face. That’s all they ever want," says an indifferent Ayoola, talking about Tade.
But it’s not just the men. “The women in the novel are just as enamoured by Ayoola’s looks as the men. I have seen enough to conclude that there is a certain allowance given to a person with a pretty face. I think it stems from the misconception that beauty is a virtue. Which may be why many of us work so very hard to attain outward beauty," explains Braithwaite.
This is a predatory Lagos where men hold all the cards and women have to fight back with whatever they have. When the resourceful Korede is stopped by an aggressive policeman, she begins to speak broken English and act humble. “‘Oga,’ I say with as much deference as I can muster. ‘no vex. It was a mistake. E no go happen again. Educated women anger men of his ilk.’"
The novel loses its way a bit in the middle, like many debut novels, but finishes strongly. It left me wanting a sequel, perhaps one where Korede turns on Ayoola. This deadly sister act deserves its own series.
The first in a monthly guide to reading more women