Review of ‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick DeWitt

(Granta Books, January 2012)

An homage to a classic Western, Patrick DeWitt’s ‘The Sisters Brothers’ is a tale of two notorious gunmen for hire, Eli and Charlie Sisters. Their latest mark – a one Hermann Kermit Warm.


Under the orders of the greedy and ruthless Commodore, the brothers travel across America to California, where their target is embroiled in the frenzy of the gold rush of the early 1850’s. Along the way they suffer numerous setbacks and come across a cast of extraordinary characters, from a crying man to a murderous child to a gypsy witch. Their fortunes change, from good to bad and back and forth again, and when they finally track down their quarry they have a life-changing choice to make.

While Charlie seems to thrive under their murderous choice of profession, Eli struggles with their nomadic and lonely lifestyle. The journey to California acts as a foil for his own personal search for something more. Ruled by his temper and prone to violent outbursts, he’s aware that he’s often manipulated by his brother but is keen to settle down to a more respectable way of life.

It’s narrated by Eli in an almost deadpan, slightly unhinged fashion that shapes the character of the entire book. When I was reading it I actually found myself imagining the dialogue said in an accent, something I don’t usually tend to do but in this case I just couldn’t help myself. It made the characters feel wonderfully real and gave them a real sense of personality.

Eli’s relationships – with his brother, his horses and with his feelings about what he does for a living – form the beating heart of this book. The classic younger brother, he looks up to Charlie with an almost hero worship and gladly follows in his lead. The dialogue between the two is incredibly realistic – it’s sometimes tense, sometimes cruel, sometimes brutally honest and sometimes the most natural thing in the world.

The way that this book was written was really interesting, and it’s easy to see how it made the long list for the Man Booker prize. It’s almost like it’s a selection of separate stories or anecdotes tied together by the strength of the central characters and the flair of DeWitt’s unique writing style. It was full of wit and dark humour and conjured up a vivid and colourful image of the life on the frontiers.

But while I can appreciate the incredibly talented writing and the construction, I’m not sure if I felt completely satisfied by the time I turned the last page. The story takes a while to kick in and I found the first quarter of the novel quite slow going. Even then, I reached the end and I felt like it was missing something story-wise. It felt as if so much time was used describing the details that the wider picture was lost to some extent. I know that other people have loved it, and if anyone else has read it I’d be really interested to know what you think!


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