The Sisters Brothers: A Novel by Patrick deWitt (New York: Ecco Publishing, 2011. 336 pp)

Born on Vancouver Island in 1975, Patrick deWitt is the author of Ablutions: Notes for a Novel. Currently living in Oregon, deWitt has also lived in California and Washington. His latest novel, The Sisters Brothers, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize.

Man Booker: A Controversy

Last year, the Man Booker Prize committee encountered controversy when they proclaimed that the books shortlisted for the prize “had to zip along”. For many readers who value the artistic merit of such literary prizes, a quick-moving novel represented populist entertainment.
This debate between art and entertainment cuts to the core of my reading pleasures. On one hand, I enjoy getting lost in a good plot. There’s nothing like reading a book that captivates you and keeps you glued to each page. On the other hand, the most impressive and meaningful books I have encountered are difficult reads. Often the trademarked of the literary genre, the plot settles in the back seat behind the poetic prose. I find myself enamored with the ways that these slow moving novels illustrate the human condition.
Interestingly, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, a Man-Booker-shortlisted novel, conveys some literary depth amongst a fast moving plot.

California-Gold-Rush Fever

Photo by bk1bennet

Set, in the Wild West during California-Gold-Rush fever, protagonist Eli Sisters and his brother, Charlie Sisters, receive prompts for a new job. Fabled as infamous outlaws, the Sisters brothers travel from Oregon City to San Francisco in search of a man with a debt to their employer. Successful completion of this operation results in the loss of life.

Make no bones about it, the Sisters brothers are ruthless and deWitt’s writing leaves nothing to the imagination.

“’Think I care what you want!’ He jabbed me and held the gun against my smarting leg. A twig snapped in the distance and I felt the gun go slack as the prospector turned to look. I grabbed the rifle barrel and yanked it away. The prospector lit out for the woods and I turned and pulled the trigger but the rifle was not loaded. I was reaching for my pistol when Charlie stepped from behind a tree and casually shot the prospector as he ran past. It was a head shot, which took the back off his skull like a cap in the wind. I dismounted and limped over to the twitching body. My leg was stinging terribly and I was possessed with a rage. The man’s brain was painted in purple blood, bubbling foam emerging from its folds; I raised up my boot and dropped my heel into the hole with all my weight behind it, caving in what was left of the skull and flattening it in general so that it was no longer recognizable as the head of a man. When I removed my boot it was as though I were pulling it from a wet mud” (105).

In addition to gory descriptions such as this quotation, deWitt explores the softer side of Eli Sisters. A portly character, Eli refuses to shoot from the hip, drink obsessively, or find solace in the arms of a prostitute, unlike his unwholesome brother Charlie.

“I had in the last year or so given up whores entirely, thinking it best to go without rather than pantomime human closeness; and though it was unrealistic for a man in my position to be thinking such thoughts, I could not help myself: I saw my bulky person in the windows of the passing storefronts and wondered, When will that man there find himself to be loved” (56)?

A Fast-Paced Western, An Introspective Tome

A Western that feels like a Coen Brothers movie, The Sisters Brothers melds violence and criminal activity with characters you can’t help but root for. The brothers are smart and crafty; they find themselves in dangerous scenarios encountering men of a much worse sort.
In addition to intriguing character developments, deWitt’s plot moves quickly with cliffhangers keeping me glued to the page. In many ways, The Sisters Brothers represents the perfect mix between a zip-along plot and character introspection. Patrick deWitt writes beautifully; his historical setting envelopes the reader. If you are looking for a fast paced book with depth, look no further than The Sisters Brothers.

Verdict: 5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards
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1 Comment Leave a comment
  • Patricia

    I read this last year and thought, “Finally a book nominated for an award that might actually deserve to win it.”

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