Review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

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This is an excellent book, and if you want to have some fun you should pick up a copy.

Now, the details.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a Western before. But then it’s not every day one is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize, and wins the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, a Governor General’s Literary Award, and a bunch of other distinctions. So I decided, on the recommendation of all these institutions and on my impression after flipping through the first pages, to give it a try. I have to say, I enjoyed myself.

The principal charm of the book lies in its first-person narrator, Eli Sisters, who comprises one half of the hitman duo Eli and Charlie Sisters. Here is a character who is at once earnest and ambivalent, vulnerable and unflinching. The simple honesty with which he tells their story — with the kind of nonchalance more befitting the life of an accountant than a hired assassin — is pleasingly juxtaposed against the brutal violence they both suffer and are obliged to inflict. And it’s funny too. This book has a lot of laughs.

As the brothers are on a mission from Oregon to California in search of a man who must die, they are constantly on the move and encountering unusual characters — from witches to bears to brandy-soaked whores. These supporting elements are intriguing and well-crafted, and some add significant depth to the story — particularly the melancholy women Eli falls for while his brother is busy getting drunk and having a good time. These encounters bring out Eli’s vulnerability, and add a new dimension to the narrative: he is not just a killer on a mission, but a self-doubting man worried about how to be more attractive to the honest ladies of the Wild West.

Consequently, the novel carries a strong charge of physical and emotional excitement, which the brevity of the book’s scenes reinforces. The novel has a regular structure, and most sections are only four pages long. These scene breaks give readers a lot of signposts to show they are making progress through the book, and making the prospect of a short reading session on a busy day appealing, as you are sure to complete a scene or two at the very least.

Where the pace does slow is when the Sisters brothers finally catch up with their man. The narrative settles in here for a longer stretch in one setting. But this is still full of danger, death, and humour, and the plot continues to drive toward its conclusion — I think I simply missed the excitement of being on the road with the brothers. The one exception to this, perhaps, is a scene covering the background of the man the Sisters brothers have been sent to kill. While it offers an interesting story in itself, I found myself distracted from the main narrative and unsure how it supported the main plot, which I wanted to get back to. We were, however, back to it quickly.

While the plot’s action — the killings, the arduous horse-treks, the love interests, the gold dust, the prostitutes — is exciting in its own right, where the book really shines is in Eli’s musings on these events. Unlike the Westerns we know, full of self-assured heroes and decisive doings, The Sisters Brothers is replete with ambivalence and ambiguity, and is among the most introspective additions to the genre. This is where the story’s relevance to today’s world is strongest, as readers are guided through a mentally rewarding series of reflections on the opaque subjects of career, love, and family.

In the end, thought, what I really want to say is I liked Eli Sisters. I miss him already. I think about him days after I put the book down. I admire the way he spoke and thought, and I smile when recalling the humour in his turns of phrase.

I admire, equally, Patrick deWitt‘s writing talent. When his next book comes out, I’ll be there. Meanwhile, you should mosey along and have a look at The Sisters Brothers.

 

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