“Killing Me Softly” (Roberta Flack)

Hello bookish blogosphere! I’ve been away for what feels like a long time. June and July were a big pile of pants and I needed a step back from things. I want to say thank you to the lovely bloggers who contacted me to ask if I was OK, when I really wasn’t. Your kindness genuinely meant a lot.

I’ve only just started reading again after about six long weeks of being unable to digest a single written word. Some very strange things have happened to my reading; I couldn’t deal with fiction for a while so I finally got round to reading some of the biographies that have languished in my TBR for aeons. Then having got back to fiction I’ve started with a subject about as far from my usual fare as its possible to be: serial killers. Except neither novel is really about serial killers…

Firstly, My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2017). This made quite a splash when it came out and I remember large, eye-catching posters on the tube, back when commuting was a thing. It’s a quick read and it was that reason that made me pick up this debut, thinking it was a good way to try and get back into reading.

My logic worked well, and I whizzed through this tale of a murderous sibling, narrated by Korede, a young successful nurse whose talent for cleaning comes in handy when helping her sister Ayoola cover up her deeds.

The novel starts in media res as Ayoola contacts Korede to ask for help having killed her third boyfriend in self-defence. Ayoola is completely oblivious to the seriousness of her crimes and seems to feel no remorse. Although Korede loyally helps her, she is beginning to have doubts as to the nature of Ayoola’s self-defence.

“ ‘Do you not realise the gravity of what you have done? Are you enjoying this?’ I grab a tissue and hand it to her, then take some for myself.

Her eyes go dark and she begins to twirl her dreadlocks.

‘These days you look at me like I’m a monster.’ Her voice is so low, I can barely hear her.

‘I don’t think you’re – ‘

‘This is victim shaming you know.’”

The novel isn’t graphic and the details of the killings are not dwelt on – thankfully, if you’re as squeamish as me. Instead what Braithwaite explores is a complex relationship between sisters and the impact of patriarchal systems on young women. It’s set in Nigeria but the themes certainly resonated with me as a UK reader.

Korede and Ayoola grew up with a violent father and it his weapon that Ayoola uses:

“ ‘The knife is important to me Korede. It is all I have left of him.’

Perhaps if it were someone else at the receiving end of this show of sentimentality, her words would hold some weight. But she cannot fool me.”

No-one questions Ayoola because she is beautiful, no-one pays attention to Korede because she is average looking. Both women suffer under a society that commodifies women, even though Korede is successful in her career as a nurse and Ayoola is a talented clothes designer.

A doctor where Korede works, Tade, seems to be decent but even he follows the predictable path of not noticing what Korede can offer and falling for Ayoola’s looks, projecting his fantasies onto her.

“ ‘She is beautiful and perfect. I never wanted to be with someone this much.’

I rub my forehead with my fingers. He fails to point out the fact that she laughs at the silliest things and never holds a grudge. He doesn’t mention how quick she is to cheat at games or that she can hemstitch a skirt without looking at her fingers. He doesn’t know her best features or her…darkest secrets. And he doesn’t seem to care.”

Ayoola dating Tade adds tension to the narrative – will she try to kill him? Will Korede try to save the man she has feelings for? Who will succeed?

Sometimes satire can leave a bitter taste, but MSTSK avoids this with it’s dry humour and lack of preachiness. It doesn’t attempt crass psychology as to why both women are as they are, it simply presents their lives and upbringing and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. This light touch means it raises serious issues about contemporary society without losing sight of characters or plot. An impressive debut.

Secondly, Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu (2008, trans. Marina Sofia 2020) which was sent to me by the lovely Marina Sofia who blogs over at Finding Time to Write. She has translated this novel under Corylus Books, the publishing house which she has founded with three others.

MSTSK used a serial killer to satirise patriarchal systems, and Sword uses it in a similar way to satirise political systems. Set in Romania, it forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit who sadly don’t seem to be blogging any more.

Someone is killing Roma people in Bucharest using the titular weapon. There is no apparent motive – except presumably a racist one – and the murders have a competence to them which means the police investigation has very little to go on. This isn’t a police procedural though, and very little of the story is given over to the murders themselves (again, thankfully…) aside from the first. Instead Teodorescu uses the murders to explore the power systems in place in Romania and how this exposes the weaknesses and motivations of those within.

If that sounds dry, it really isn’t. The story whips along and the portrayals of power players feel authentic (Teodorescu is a political analyst). Early on, the petty concerns of Istrate, Head of Comms and Press Relations at the Presidential Office, demonstrate the disregard that the deaths receive. He only likes the social side and travel associated with his job, and the President hates him and so has set up another press office.

“He was briefly tempted to write a report complaining about the lack of professionalism in his team. Instead of getting reports about major problems, the international situation, global crises that could destabilise the Balkan region, an in-depth political analysis, he had to put up with silly homicide stories! He gave up reading the press summary, but resolved to complain about it the next time he met the President.”

The government is concerned, but only in trying to balance appealing to those who might welcome vigilante justice represented by Sword (as the press have nicknamed the killer) because he only kills criminals, and how it will look internationally that they haven’t caught him. The advice given to the Minister of the Interior suggests how to manage the situation in a pre-election year:

“A few heads rolling at all levels in the police force should demonstrate the government is taking things seriously. Admittedly, it also demonstrates how incompetent the police are, but no-one worries about that too much.”

Despite such machinations, the murders continue to rack up and tensions in the country between various groups escalate. The context of Romania finding its place in international capitalist systems after the fall of communism is evoked well but it doesn’t take much imagination – if any – to see parallels across different political systems. I felt this could just as easily be Westminster. There’s something depressingly universal about someone with integrity being forced aside for political expediency:

“ ‘It’s not anger. It’s profound sadness. Because you’ve proven to me yet again that it’s not good enough to be qualified, professional, well-intentioned and to work your socks off… it still won’t get you the respect you deserve.’”

Sword is incisive and uncompromising in its portrayal of corruption and the powerless victims of such systems, but its not depressing. Instead I found it a compelling read and I’d definitely be interested to read more by this author.

Writing this post was difficult as I’m so out of practice, but to end it’s business as usual with an obvious late twentieth century pop choice 😀

45 thoughts on ““Killing Me Softly” (Roberta Flack)

  1. It’s really lovely to see you back, although I’m sorry to hear that June and July were so awful for you. Better times ahead for all of us, I hope…

    I too recall seeing those striking tube posters for My Sister… one of those books that seemed to be everywhere when it came out in p/b. Anyway, I’m glad to hear that you liked it so much – and the lack of gratuitous violence must have been a relief, especially given what else has been going on in the world over the past few months. I shall keep it in mind for the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing the reads that helped you get your reading mojo back, it’s always good to have a few if those on the shelf, to allow for times when nothing else will do. Sending you a virtual embrace and caring thoughts and wishing the right books will be at your fingertips for the days ahead. No expectations in this community, just full appreciation for your words when they are able to appear. 🌸
    I avoided the Sister book but I have to say you do make it sound card lot more interesting than I’d thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for such a lovely comment Claire, its so kind of you.

      Sister was a lot more interesting than I expected, the killing is really just a starting point to look at wider issues and it’s cleverly done. A book about serial killings in itself wouldn’t appeal to me at all!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So lovely to see you back! I had been wondering, a little worriedly, if all was ok but didn’t want to intrude. We are in strange times so stay safe and take care of yourself!

    As for your bookish treats, I haven’t been drawn to Sister, but you do make it appealing. And I have Sword to get round too as well (I am somewhat drowning in books right now).

    Hopefully August will be better for you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kaggsy, it’s lovely to be back! Hope you are staying safe and well too 🙂

      Sister really isn’t about the killing, much more about familial bonds and patriarchy, so it was actually more up my street than I expected! I hope you enjoy Sword, I found it so interesting.

      Yes, here’s to a wonderful August (fingers crossed!)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So glad to see you back! 😀 I wish I’d known you were on a trip to Romania though – we must have been there at the same time. We could have met up for an Around the World chat, although obviously staying well clear of men wielding swords… and politicians!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s great to have you back! I hope things are better now.

    I’m very tempted by My Sister the Serial Killer, I’ll add it on my wish list.

    I LOVED Sword. I’ve read it in French, it was published in France before Marina Sofia translated it and it’s so, so good. It’s such a clever picture of a political system that happens to be in Romania but could be anywhere else.

    If you want to read a fun book about a hitman, I’d recommend Calling Mr King by Ronald de Fao.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Emma! Things are much better now.

      I hope you enjoy MSTSK when you get to it. It’s a very quick read.

      The blurb on the UK edition of Sword had a lot of the French reviews and it said it had been really popular in France. Great to hear how much you enjoyed it too. I totally agree – the political situation could be anywhere.

      I’ll look out for Calling Mr King – thank you for the recommendation!

      Like

  6. Good to see you back Madame B, and from the sounds of it, back on good form 😊 I’m floundering myself at the moment so you’ve boosted my resolve and reminded me that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Stay well, keep posting when you can!

    😊

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s wonderful to have you back in our blogging lives! I was really interested to read your review of MSTSK. I’m not sure why, but I just didn’t get it the first time round. Perhaps I need to give it another go some time.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Welcome back, Madame Bibi, hope things are looking up again now. It’s waves and waves, isn’t it, of anger, emotion, depression, anxiety and (in my case) sheer exhaustion or laziness or call it what you will.
    Thank you for such a great review of Sword! I’m pleased you enjoyed it and hasten to reassure you that any similarities with other corrupt governments anywhere else in the world are purely… coincidental.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Marina, yes things looking much better now. As you say, we’re all having a tough time at the moment.

      Thank you for sending me Sword! I wouldn’t have thought to read it if it wasn’t for your reassurances that it wasn’t a serial killer thriller but much more a political novel. I really enjoyed it and isn’t it a shame that its so widely recognisable….

      Like

  9. Hello! Hello! I’ve missed you… and I wondered but I didn’t want to be a pest… so glad you’re back (reading and blogging).

    Pleased to read your positive thoughts on MSTSK – I’ve been unsure about this one (serial killer books not being my genre) – but the promise of dry humour is enough reason to put it on my list.

    Talking Heads. How good are they?!

    Unrelated: I see you are reading Lucia. Wonderfully restorative after a stretch of no reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kate, it’s lovely to be back and catching up on all the blogs again.

      MSTSK is honestly not a serial killer book – she’s much more interested in the relationship between the sisters and how society has made them who they are, I promise!

      I always forget how good Talking Heads are until I hear them again – so good!

      Lucia fell by the wayside when I struggled to read but you’re right – she’s the perfect choice now 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: My Sister, the Serial Killer | Necromancy Never Pays

  11. I’m so sorry to hear you’ve been through a bad period and happy that you’re pulling out of it. Best wishes for continued good health in these dark & dangerous times.
    I really enjoyed your reviews of both books. I was “aware” of MSTSK but in my ignorance had dismissed it as a sensationalist work that was being (perhaps) overly hyped. Your review made me realize what a mistake this was! The book sounds far more complex (and fun) than I gave it credit for. As for Sword — I was totally unfamiliar with book and author, so I’m grateful to learn about both.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind words 🙂

      A lot of work is over-hyped at the moment and I tend to avoid those books because they never seem to live up to it. Certainly MSTSK had a massive advertising campaign. But it is a complex book, it carries its big themes very lightly and is a quick read.

      I probably wouldn’t have picked up Sword if Marina hadn’t sent it to me – I would have thought it was a gory killing spree which it really isn’t. Like you, I’m grateful to learn about he author, he seems to have interesting things to say.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #133 – Book Jotter

  13. I’m sorry to hear you had a rough couple of months, but happy to hear things are getting back on track. Let’s hope it continues! When I was going through a dry reading spell a few months ago, I was fascinated to find I was drawn to books I would normally keep pushing to the back burner – namely, nonfiction. I got some books read I’d been meaning to read for a while! I also read a lot of short story collections.

    A serial killer theme is a great way to make a comeback! (I just assumed you were having a well-deserved rest after posting everyday in May!) I still haven’t read MSTSK, but now that I know it’s not really about the killing I just might add it to the list! Sword sounds good, too, but have a feeling it would be hard to find around here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Naomi! Yes, i was drawn to non-fiction too, and like you, I usually leave that on the ‘one day…’ pile. Here’s hoping we’re both done with reading dry spells for now 🙂

      MSTSK really isn’t about serial killing. The violence that’s given more attention is domestic. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a Canadian release of Sword – usually its your blog tempting me with lots of goodies that aren’t published here!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Aw. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been poorly. Like Naomi, I just assumed you were in recovery from your exhausting pace of reading in May! How lovely that you’re feeling strong enough to make a return. And how fortunate that you/we have soooo many good books just hanging around, so that, when we are struggling to concentrate, there is hardly a limit to how many different kinds of stories we can try, until something fits and tugs us back into the escape that reading can provide. Here’s to feeling better and better.

    Liked by 1 person

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