Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta Books; 272 pages; 2011.
Canadian author Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize and longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.
It is the kind of book that could best be described as an enjoyable romp. It’s billed as a Western, but I saw it more as a road story — with guns and horses.
Set during the California gold rush of the 1850s, it is narrated by Eli Sister, one half of the Sisters brothers of the title, who makes his living as an assassin. But Eli is not your average killer for hire — he has a sensitive side, troubled by his weight, worried he’ll never find a woman to settle down with and constantly dreaming of a different life, perhaps running a trading post “just as long as everything was restful and easy and completely different from my present position in the world”.
His elder brother Charlie is more what one would imagine as a typical killer — he is ruthless, is attracted to violence and doesn’t suffer fools. But he’s also an alcoholic and his love of brandy means he spends a lot of his time on the road nursing horrendous hangovers.
At the beginning of the novel we learn that the pair have been hired by the Commodore — a mysterious man whom we never meet — to kill gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (now, that’s what I call a great character name!). The brothers are based in Oregon and Warm is supposedly in California, hence their journey on horseback to hunt down their prey. Neither of them know why they have been asked to kill Warm, but this is the least of their concerns: there is tension between them because Charlie has been hired as the “lead” and therefore will get a greater share of the fee. Eli is not pleased.
Part of the reason that the novel is so entertaining is the relationship between the two brothers. The banter and constant, often petty, arguments between them are quite hilarious, especially the way in which they wind each other up and try to push emotional buttons just to get a reaction.
‘What’s that? You’re not smiling, are you? We’re in a quarrel and you mustn’t under any circumstances smile.’ I was not smiling, but then began to, slightly. ‘No,’ said Charlie, ‘you mustn’t smile when quarreling. It’s wrong, and I dare say you know it’s wrong. You must stew and hate and revisit all the slights I offered you in childhood.’
While we only ever see things from Eli’s perspective, he is a genuinely likable character, with just a few (quite serious) flaws. But what makes him so empathetic is that he recognises these flaws — “When my temper is up everything goes black and narrow for me. […] I do not regret that the man is dead but wish I had kept better hold of my emotions. The loss of control does not frighten me so much as embarrass me” — and strives always to improve himself.
He loves his brother, but wishes he wasn’t so free and easy with the drink — and his gun.
At first, his rather stilted old-fashioned voice takes some getting used to — mainly because it is free from contractions (these only appear in reported speech) — but there’s a lovely rhythm to it which makes for a refreshing change.
My problem with the novel lies mainly with the story arc. The first half is essentially a series of set pieces strung together. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, because they demonstrate the brothers’ less obvious differences and their rivalries. This scene, in which Eli gives a woman he meets a generous tip, perfectly captures the contrast between them, but also the bond that they share:
She dropped the coin into her pocket. Peering down the hall in the direction Charlie had gone she asked, ‘I don’t suppose your brother’ll be leaving me a hundred.’ ‘No, I don’t suppose he will.’ ‘You got all the romantic blood, is that it?’ ‘Our blood is the same, we just use it differently.’
But the second half, in which the brothers find Warm and then set about the task for which they’ve been hired, falls a bit flat. It doesn’t all go according to plan — that would be far too obvious — but it does get a bit melancholic. This isn’t helped by Eli doing a little too much soul-searching — “I thought, Perhaps a man is never meant to be truly happy. Perhaps there is no such a thing in our world, after all” — and later admitting that, “Sometimes I feel a helplessness”.
If there is a moral to this story it might be this: that hired killers will get what’s coming to them, eventually.
For two more takes on this novel, courtesy of my fellow Shadow Giller jurors, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.
10 thoughts on “‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick deWitt”
This really doesn’t seem like my kind of book, but I so love that cover that I just may give a it a shot. Sorry it was just so so for you.
The names are simply fantastic in this book. The title rather clever too. Still unsure whether I’ll enjoy this. Anything slightly Western and with guns puts me off immediately.
Saw this in the library, but didn’t pick it up, mainly for the same reasons as Mae. The artwork on the cover is pretty good however.
Thanks for your comments. I think I may well be the only person in the world you doesn’t find this cover attractive — I think it’s creepy. I wouldn’t have liked to see it glaring at me on the bedside table! Fortunately, because I read it on a Kindle, I didn’t have to look at it at all. 😉
I’ve never read a western, nor do I plan to do so. But this book was a genre bending ” noir western” with a lot of heart too. I simply loved it! And I admit that part of what grabbed me was the cover!
I never found the book to be melancholic. While to it’s credit, it had thoughtful passages, I found myself laughing all through the book.
I recommend highly!
I’m beginning to feel like I’m the only person in this world who liked this novel… thank goodness Deborah left a comment!
I’ve actually read a lot of westerns and while I didn’t think the book re-invented the genre, the writing was much better than the norm. There have been reviews by a few people who also felt the second half of the book fell flat. But I’m not sure if “flat” is the right word. The ending – for me – just felt like it went into strange, fantastic territory that didn’t jive with the rest of the story. The events after they’ve reached California and find Warm were just as interesting as the rest of the book… but felt like an entirely different novel. Almost as if two stories had been patched together in the middle.
I liked the novel! I gave it three stars!
But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head re: the book being two stories stuck together. Perhaps “flat” was the wrong choice of words to describe the second half, but that’s how it left me feeling. And it was the melancholia at the end which stayed with me, so that all the lovely humour and banter and even the dangerous excitement of looking for gold paled by comparison.
But each reader is different and takes different things away from the experience of reading the same book. On the whole, I enjoyed this book — it was readable and entertaining — but I didn’t think it was anything exceptional. (That said, it will probably go on to win the Booker and the Giller!)
Glad you loved this one, Deborah. As I state above I enjoyed it a lot — and the Western aspect didn’t bother me, I’ve read Westerns before — but I found the wonderful humour and banter at the beginning soured into something much more melancholic and sad towards the end. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that — an emotional reaction tends to indicate the story has succeeded — but it did feel like a novel of two halves.
I liked this book a lot, review might turn up on the blog one day who knows, and I was actually shocked because even though I had seen other reviewers saying it was very good indeed the fact it was a western WAS really putting me off. I am glad I gave it a whirl.
I wouldnt say that I liked the cover, but I think its very clever and quite eye catching… if a little creepy 😉
I didn’t have that sense, of it being a novel of two parts. Maybe that’s partly because I read it in short order, so I didn’t have a chance to spot a dividing line between reading sessions, but the story’s resolution grew, for me, out of the dissatisfaction that we saw so early on in Eli. It felt “right”. Refreshing is an interesting choice of words to describe Eli’s voice (given the whole “dental” thing! heh); it was definitely his voice that made the novel for me!