Thursday, 22 November 2012
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
It is 1851, and a lust for gold has swept the American frontier. Two brothers - the notorious Eli and Charlie Sisters - are on the road to California, following the trail of an elusive prospector, Hermann Kermit Warm. On this odyssey Eli and his brother cross paths with a remarkable cast of characters - losers, cheaters and ne'er-do-wells from all stripes of life - and Eli begins to question what he does for a living, and whom he does it for. (I don't normally copy summaries, but this one is perfect).
I went into this book expecting to enjoy it because of all the hype around it and the positive reviews I have seen, but I didn't expect to enjoy the Western element as much as I did. I've never read a Western before and I'm not American so I was surprised at how natural the reading experience was. I loved the grimy, cockroach infested hotels the brothers stayed in with prostitutes at the ready and men having shoot-outs in the dust. I loved the idea of burying gold dust and busting mafia-style crime rings. I have some adventure in my spirit and anyone who does will enjoy the Western elements of The Sisters Brothers. DeWitt balanced all of this rip-roaring, swash-buckling adventure by also showing the harshness of life on the frontier in 1851, not shying away from the nastier elements and this gave the novel some much-needed grit and realism.
I remember there was a lot of fuss about this book being included on the Booker short-list in 2011, with critics complaining that it's not literary enough. But I disagree; The Sisters Brothers is genre fiction, but it also transcends the genre and has a lot to say about human existence. Whereas Charlie is more of a straight-forward villain, Eli is a sympathetic character who has drifted into the killing business under the influence his big brother. He may be a contract killer, but he doesn't think much of money and dreams of giving it all up to open his own shop (Charlie wants to be the kind of gangster who gets to run a whole town). He's a romantic who falls in love easily and who won't abandon his horse when it is injured. Eli is the heart of the novel and through him DeWitt manages to make the book both funny, adventurous and sad. As the reader can see that Eli is essentially a good guy, all the way through the book you are rooting for him to be able to have the courage to leave Charlie and do something just for himself. He has some big disappointments towards the end of the novel and I was genuinely sad for him. I wasn't expecting Eli to be the character he was and it made the book so much more powerful and, dare I say it, literary.
The Sisters Brothers was one of those books I bought because it was on a short-list and because plenty of people seemed to enjoy reading it. I'm glad I did, because it's something I would never have picked out for myself and I thoroughly enjoyed every page of it. Recommended even for Western newbies like me.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2011
My Edition: Granta, 2012
Score: 4.5 out of 5