Wednesday 7 March 2018

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Patrick DeWitt is a Canadian author who now lives in Oregon, USA. The Sisters Brothers won the 75th Canadian Governor General's Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2012 Walter Scott Prize.

The Man Booker shortlist synopsis states that,

this dazzlingly original novel is a darkly funny, offbeat western about a reluctant assassin and his murderous brother. Oregon, 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters, notorious professional killers, are on their way to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. On the way, the brothers have a series of unsettling and violent experiences in the Darwinian landscape of Gold Rush America. Charlie makes money and kills anyone who stands in his way; Eli doubts his vocation and falls in love. And they bicker a lot. Then they get to California, and discover that Warm is an inventor who has come up with a magical formula, which could make all of them very rich.
What happens next is utterly gripping, strange and sad. 
Told in deWitt’s darkly comic and arresting style, The Sisters Brothers is the kind of western the Coen Brothers might write – stark, unsettling and with a keen eye for the perversity of human motivation. Like his debut novel Ablutions, it is a novel about the things you tell yourself in order to be able to continue to live the life you find yourself in, and what happens when those stories no longer work 
It is an inventive and strange and beautifully controlled piece of fiction and displays an exciting expansion of Dewitt’s range.

I confess this type of story is not my usual fare, but sometimes a book benefits from a little detective work before reading. 

I had tried to read UnderMajorDomo Minor a couple of years ago after Mr Books raved about how much he enjoyed it. But I couldn't get into it at all. When my bookclub assigned The Sisters Brothers as our February read, I knew I would have to work at finding a way in. I kept putting off reading it and when I bumped into a couple of bookclub members in a local cafe who were both struggling along at the halfway mark, I knew this book was going to become my very own personal challenge.

So, I fell back onto good old-fashioned research.

I discovered via Wikipedia that The Sisters Brothers was inspired by a Time–Life book on the California Gold Rush, which deWitt found at a garage sale.

My back cover quote from the Financial Times informed me that it was,
a witty noir Don Quixote...a blackly comic fable about emptiness, loneliness and the hollow lure of gold.

I have never read Don Quixote, so I read it's wikipedia summary and learnt that,
  1. Don Quixote doesn't see the world for what it really is
  2. it's a parody of the romantic/chivalry style that was popular at the time
  3. it features quests, adventures and episodes
  4. fantasy versus the real world
  5. famous quote 'tilting at windmills'
  6. spawned it's own adjective 'quixotic'
  7. was an example of a picaresque novel

What on earth is a picaresque novel?
I'm glad you asked!
The Brittanica website says, 

The picaresque novel (Spanish: picaresca, from pícaro, for "rogue" or "rascal") is a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by their wits in a corrupt society.

Image source

I now felt ready to begin my journey with Eli and Charlie Sisters.

Eli is our faithful but disaffected narrator. We quickly learn that he is kind-hearted, sensitive and not at all keen to continue life as a hit-man. He is burnt-out and reminded me somewhat of Jules in the movie Pulp Fiction who also wants to retire from his life of crime.

Eli's voice is rather dry and wry, deadpan yet melancholic. The fraternal relationship is the heart and soul of this wild west picaresque (yes! she used it in a sentence! new word bonus!) as the title suggests.

Charlie is a harder case to crack. He's the older brother who watches over (bosses around) his adoring younger brother. As their journey proceeds, Eli is forced to see Charlie more realistically and less idealistically even as Charlie undergoes his own life-altering event.

Their bizarre adventures, weird coincidences and chance meetings move us from Oregon to California via saloons, shoot-outs and drunken binges. A crying horseman, a cursed hut and a one-eyed horse cross our paths. A couple of unexpected intermissions are thrown in as well.

DeWitt was asked about these during an interview with Mumsnet,

I tend to work from a place of instinct rather than intellect. I like mysteries, in the work of others and in my own work as well. It's common for me to write sections that don't serve a specific purpose but feel necessary to me, and the intermission sections are good examples of this. I can't say that they propel a narrative or 'do'anything, but I find them crucial in fleshing out the landscape, illustrating its strangeness and "dangerousness".

The Western style that dominates the first two-thirds, suddenly changes to a sci-fi thriller when the brothers finally meet up with their latest target - a mad scientist type who has created a crazy toxic potion that finds gold.

Telegraph review at the time described the book as Laurel & Hardy meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with a Little House on the Prairie ending. It's all of that and more.

I found myself thoroughly enjoying the ride that DeWitt took me on. Eli's narration is funny, poignant and insightful. The research helped me to get passed the hurdles that affected some of my fellow book-clubbers. It was a case of a little bit of knowledge going a long way.

A movie starring John C Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal and Joaquin Phoenix is due later this year. I may even be tempted to go and see it.


  1. I read this a few years ago and loved it. It was such a surprise because I really hadn't expected to enjoy it at all! Eli is a great narrator, isn't he?

    1. He really is. I hope John C Reilly is playing Eli in the movie, cause I think he could do it perfectly. He can do that unassuming, thoughtful, sensitive guy routine so well.

      I love it when a book confounds expectation. It's good to be pushed or prompted to read outside your comfort zone or usual genre. I'm really glad my bookclub picked this book now.

  2. Now you've made me curious!
    John C. Reilly doesn't take on any ol' part in a movie....he's very critical.
    Research has been done by you ( many thanks..) and I will see if I can read this book.
    Just to see what it is like. You know, first 100 pages? If the book does not dazzle me ...then I take drastic measures!

    1. You're kinder than me Nancy - I only give a book 50pgs!

  3. You have me interested in it. I was given this book by a friend and there it sits on my shelf unread. I need to get into the story somehow and then perhaps the story will come alive. It doesn't sound like it was as tough as you thought it would be. Reading it before the movie comes out would be perfect.

    1. Definitely read before the movie, it's easy to picture John C Reilly as Eli already, so that won't spoil anything for anyone.

      Mr Books is just about finished it now as well - and has loved it. The writing style tickles his fancy and he loves Eli's voice too.


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