Review: The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt

The Sisters BrothersWell, The Sisters Brothers didn’t win this year’s Booker Prize and most of the pundits said that it was an outsider.  Perhaps it was a little too quirky, a humorous add-on the short-list to provide some light reading for those who struggle through the complete set.

The novel is set in 1851, and readers find themselves in the company of Eli and Charlie Sisters, a couple of “guns for hire” who are travelling on horseback from Oregon to California where they have a job to do, “to find and kill a prospector in California named Hermann Kermit Warm”.

The story is told by Eli, the younger of the two, a man who has lived in the shadow of his big brother all his life but without his brother’s natural liking for cold-blooded murder.

The brothers journey is slow and full of incidents and strange meetings – the “weeping man” who seems to have an incurable sorrow which he is unable to properly communicate, a young boy who has lost his family but who the brothers have to leave in the wild, various whores and criminals who think they can double-cross the brothers only to have their hopes seriously disappointed.

But it is the character of Eli which is most beguiling, with his self-doubt and introspective ponderings on the life of an assassin.  Clearly he is not comfortable with his adopted profession and yearns to be a shop-keeper in a small town:  a career about as diametrically opposed to being a hit-man as it is possible to be.

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think of the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou, with its multiple humorous incidents and also its mythic qualities which raise it above the average “western”.  George Clooney would make a great Charlie Sisters and I kept slotting him into my mind-pictures as I read.

Patrick deWitt has a knack for capturing things with fresh eyes.  For example, at one point, Eli Sisters has a bad tooth which causes his face to swell up and create agonising pain.  They travel into a small town and manage to find Reginald Watts, a failed farmer who has turned to dentistry, but bemoans the fact that he has only had three customers in as many weeks – “It would appear that oral hygiene is low on the list of priorities in this part of the world”.  His training has consisted of memorising the nerve chart and then working out for himself how to use the dentists tools which were shipped to him on credit.  However, Watts has learned how to inject cocaine into the gum to enable him to treat his patients painlessly, and what’s more, after the procedure, he gives Eli a toothbrush and some tooth powder.  When he shows Eli how to clean his teeth, Eli is “greatly impressed with the tingling feeling this toothbrush gave me” and vows to use it every day.

The world never stops surprising the brothers with its new inventions and like the three partners in the Coen Brothers film, they move from one thought-provoking encounter to another, each one of which provokes a few philosophising remarks from the thoughtful Eli.

The brothers experience of women has been based on their experiences in bars and whorehouses, but Eli learns the pleasures of intimate conversation with a female accountant for a whorehouse.  He leaves his brother to the delights of drink and women while he follows the accountant outside and finds that nothing is quite so rewarding as a relationship.  Things cannot progress beyond the first explorations of a relationship but his desire for a settled life is intensified.  Whereas Charlie takes to killing like a fish to water,  Eli has had enough and tells his brother that the planned murder in California will be his last.

When the brothers arrive in San Francisco, things do not work out quite as they had planned.  They discover much about Hermann Warm has a remarkable invention which appears to increase productivity of gold-panning a hundred-fold. The last third of the book describes the brothers adventures in trying to fulfil their deadly mission this is not as straightforward as they expected.  In the end, Eli and Charlie’s odyssey comes to an end but not in a way the reader could possible have predicted, although it is a satisfying enough ending to this unique novel.

As suggested earlier, if ever a book was crying out to be made into a film this is it.  It is full of visual images and eccentric incidents to which no humorous extras need to be added.  Its a wholly enjoyable read, perhaps reminiscent of Peter Carey’s writings, but different enough for DeWitt to be classed as an original writer who will be worth watching in the future.

On a more practical note, there was a discussion on BBC radio this morning between a book designer and an erstwhile designer of LP covers.  The LP designer reminded listeners of how the whole LP design industry disappeared with the advent of music downloads and that album design is now an irrelvance.  The book designer from Penguin argued that good book design can increase sales.  A few years ago I would have been on the side of the book designer, but now I’ve discarded so many paper-based volumes from my library I really don’t want to re-clutter the shelves with endless more – however well-designed they are.

The Sisters Brothers is on the face of it well-designed but I soon tired of the peculiar font with its strong verticals and extra-fine horizontals.  This made it not an easy read I and I began to long for my Kindle.  The book doesn’t have chapter headings in the conventional sense, but each “chapter” begins with the first line type-set in an extra large but even narrower font which I found disrupted my reading and caused me to have to re-read the first line a couple of times before I got the gist of it.  The book design is credited to Suet Yee Chong and I think he needs to learn that while a book should look good, the main aim of book design is to aid the reading experience, not to detract from it.

15 comments to Review: The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt

  • I m just in middle of this one and agree it is very quirky I get o brother as well also those b movie westerns of the fifties ,I think he is a writer I ll be watching in the future Tom see where he takes me as a reader after this one ,all the best stu

  • HI Tom, I downloaded a sample of this to my Kindle & enjoyed it enough that I will purchase the whole book, as to its cinematic quality, if I recall correctly I heard on the Culture show special devoted to the prize, that its author is in negotiations & it will probably be made into a film. Great post thanks.

  • Hi Tom, I adored this book – generally loving all things quirky, entertaining and Coen-brothers-ish and it satisfied by growing penchant for westerns perfectly. I also loved the cover, the font didn’t bother me at all.

  • Tom

    Annabel – thanks for visiting. Yes, its quite a good read isn’t it. Perhaps not Booker-winner material, but worth a prize somewhere or other

  • I’m really looking forward to this one I must admit. It just sounds fun. Not perhaps highbrow literary fiction, but that’s far from the only game in town.

    Besides, I like the Coen Brothers’ work (most of it anyway, not all), I like Westerns, and I like the quotes I’ve seen from this. All that and it sounds frankly less portentous than Cormac “The snow fell, nor did it cease to fall” McCarthy.

  • Tom

    Max – thanks for visiting. I was reminded of a sort of sinister Garrison keillor – perhaps not quite right, but similarly satirical and humorous. But more than anything, its O Brother Where Art Thou revisited.

  • Out of all the booker books this year I think this one appealed the most because I do love western settings and the quirky. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  • A film I’m very fond of. One of their better ones in fact. Not my next read, but probably not too far away. I’ve not read any Garrison Keillor, but I’m familiar with him. A nice comparison. What do you make of his stuff?

  • I liked this book. But I do think it would work much better as a film! Of the books I read from the shortlist, this was one of my favourites. I wasn’t surprised when The Sense of an Ending won the Booker, though…

  • Dianne

    Several times the author jumped the narrative forward and then filled in the back story. I wonder what you make of that? It hasn’t been mentioned in any review, but it struck me. Especially as I was reading on an e-reader ( I need the larger font size) and felt at first that something had been left out of that version.

  • Tom

    Hi Dianne – thanks for visiting. I can’t say that I found the jumping back and forth particularly concerting – other authors use the same device I think. What I don’t like is extended flashbacks which spoil the flow of the story. I didn’t feel that deWitt did that. Glad you’re finding your e-reader useful

  • I thought this book was great. One of the few major award winners that is accessible to the average reader. I also agree about the font. The book would have been much easier to read if the typesetting was “standard.”

  • Tom

    Christopher – thanks for visiting and adding your comments. Yes, it is accessible but also very cleverly written. I don’t know why so many publishers fall down on the basics of finding a suitable font to publish their books in

  • Gail

    Just finished reading the Sisters Brothers and, I agree, it had the Coen brothers written all over it. Hope they do it. Loved the book – had me chuckling and cringing at the same time. Delightful. George may be a little long in the tooth to play one of the brothers but there is a spot for him in this one I’m sure.

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