The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt

It seems I have a habit of starting book reviews by explaining how I came across the book, and I don’t see any reason to break that tradition now.

I first came across The Sisters Brothers through the site-generated book recommendations on my goodreads account. I forwarded the information onto a friend who I thought would like the novel, and  then forgot about it until I was browsing at the bookshop and saw the shelf for the Man Brooker Prize nominees for 2011. Five weeks, a reservation notification, and a trip to the city library later, and the book was in my hands.

Set in the ol’ west, the novel tells the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, notorious killers for the man known only as ‘The Commodore’. The story picks up just as the brothers recieve their next assignment: the assasination of gold-prospector Hermann Warm. The brothers then take off on an adventure-filled journey across the old west, though it soon emerges that our narrator, Eli is not as enthusiastic about their chosen profession as his brother Charlie, whose boozing and whoring ways also create tension between the two.

DeWitt’s narrative voice is funny, and deceptively simple, and certainly lulled me into reading for longer periods of time than I’d planned. Eli’s voice is charming, eloquent and insightful – and yet times deliberately awkward/naive, which gives the impression of a simple, straightforward narrative. He is contantly trying to figure out who he is, and his status as a younger brother is entirely believable. He wants to leave the brutal life he is leading now, but doesn’t know who he’d be if he left his brother. His seemingly simple view of the world gives rise to some truly excellent bits of ‘unintended’ humour, and DeWitt excels in creating situations where this can be put to use; such as spider bites, swelling faces, sibling rivalry, love-sick dieting and even sometimes the killing itself.

DeWitt weaves details into the narrative which the character thinks nothing of, but which keep the reader thinking that maybe everything is not what it seems, or that other characters are lying about events and Eli is just taking it at face value. This feeling continued throughout the novel for me, and while it makes Eli very likeable, it is also a symptom of the one thing I really didn’t like about this book: nothing seems to be resolved.

The brothers’ journey across the west almost seems episodic in nature, with a new misadventure around every turn. DeWitt introduces characters and scenarios the whole way through, but only a few of these subplots are resolved properly – and there never felt to me to be a proper resolution of the plot as a whole. The whole book, you are rooting for Eli to step up and take action, reject the life he has become miserable in, and find some way to reconcile who he is now, with who he wants to be – but in the end outside forces dictate almost every outcome of the novel and you’re left wondering just what was achieved. Much like real life – and who knows, that may have been the point.

To sum up, I did enjoy the book. It was a little slow in pace, but in a way which worked well, and it was filled with subtle humour and delightful prose. I’d definitely suggest giving the book a read, but maybe not buying it.

Definitely a library read.


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