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.