The Sisters Brothers

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Somehow I was so out of touch with all the hype surrounding this multiply-shortlisted and award-winning second novel by Patrick deWitt that I had seen no reviews of it, knew nothing about it aside from the title, which I assumed was actually The Sisters’ Brothers (or perhaps The Sister’s Brothers). That tiny little punctuation mark suggested an entirely different genre for the novel. From the apostrophe alone, in the three-second flashes my mind had allotted to noticing the book, my brain had invented some kind of historical family saga, probably set in Newfoundland. Some hard-knock life mixed with a bit of Canadian regionalism (or perhaps regional Canadianism), all shaken up with a shot of families dancing on the line between loyalty and betrayal. Then I got hold of the book and noticed that its cover didn’t really fit, oh – and those stylised figures seem to be holding guns. Perhaps I was on the wrong track entirely…

Anyway, one page in and all preconceptions had been identified, tracked down and removed. Eli and Charlie Sisters are notorious killers who work for the Commodore, on their way to San Francisco to dispose of Hermann Warm, a man whom the Commodore says has tried to steal from him. Their farcical journey there takes up a significant portion of the novel, with horse problems, whores, gangsters, killings. Many critics have compared it to frontier novels, but the comic gruesomeness, the unexpected violence mixed with nonchalance, is also very reminiscent of Tarantino.

Although the brothers have previously worked as a pair, the Commodore has now made Charlie the lead man. Charlie is older, more brutal, more heartless than Eli, who is set up as a fairly traditional fat baddy – brutal childhood, latches onto protection of older boy, becomes violent himself but nonetheless still feels the beating of his tender little heart, etc. However, Eli is not happy about playing second fiddle, and as the pair progress towards San Francisco, leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake, he chases his tail through an ongoing internal debates about giving up the killing life. After Charlie gets himself outfitted one day Eli finds himself quite taken with the idea of owning a store. This is his vision of settling down, which goes alongside his vision of a suitable woman to settle down with (the few women he tries to attract/buy en route are not really the settling type).

Allegiances shift when the brothers finally track down Warm and realise that the Commodore’s tracker Morris is now in cahoots with him. The Sisters follow the pair out to a gold claim, and at this point De Witt reveals his skill at character development that is not smothered in disingenuousness or irony. This section is really where the novel finally found a heart to match its cleverness. The Sisters Brothers is an intelligent, well crafted novel. If my own preference is for something a little more earnest and honest in its exploration of the human heart and mind (especially having caught a glimpse of de Witt’s perfect aim in this regard), the critics thought it was pretty much perfect as it stood: The Sisters Brothers won both the Governor General’s and the Writers’ Trust awards last year.

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