Until I picked up The Sisters Brothers last month I had never read a western before and didn’t think I would ever want to read one. But after Patrick deWitt’s novel, with its unusual title and cover, appeared on the Booker Prize shortlist earlier this year and so many people were saying they enjoyed it, I thought I’d see what it was like.
The Sisters Brothers is set in the 1850s during the Gold Rush and has everything you would expect to find in a western – guns, horses, saloons, duels, drinking, fighting, and gold prospecting. I know this might not sound very appealing to a lot of you, but I hope you won’t let it put you off because at the heart of this novel is a wonderful story about the relationship between two brothers. They are Charlie and Eli Sisters, names that are feared throughout the wild west. Charlie and Eli are hired killers, who earn their living by taking orders from the mysterious Commodore. When the Commodore tells them that their next assignment is to find and kill the prospector Hermann Kermit Warm, the brothers set off on an eventful journey from Oregon to California.
The brothers encounter lots of memorable characters on their travels (including a ‘weeping man’, an orphaned boy and his horse, and a dentist who introduces Eli to the joys of the toothbrush) but the focus is always on Eli and Charlie themselves. Charlie is the more dominant and aggressive brother, while Eli is more cautious and sensitive, which causes some conflict between the two. I was pleased to find that both characters did develop and change, at least to some extent, over the course of the book. Charlie had seemed a completely unsympathetic character at first, but I later found that he had a bit more depth than I’d originally thought. And while Eli wasn’t exactly the most pleasant of people either, I couldn’t help liking him as he did at least have a conscience and wanted to be a better person – even if he didn’t always manage it.
The Sisters brothers are the type of characters we would more often read about from the opposite perspective, as the book’s villains – but in this book, with the story being narrated by Eli, we are supposed to accept them as our heroes (or anti-heroes, maybe). It’s a testament to Patrick deWitt’s writing that he makes it possible for us to care so much about a pair of murderers and I think this is due partly to Eli being such an appealing narrator. Some of the dialogue is very funny and there’s lots of dark humour, but I should probably warn you that there are also some fairly graphic scenes of violence and cruelty, though I think this is to be expected considering the setting and the profession of the two main characters.
The chapters are short and there’s always something happening: in the first fifty pages alone, Eli is bitten by a venomous spider, his horse gets attacked by a bear and a witch tries to put a curse on the brothers. It all felt slightly surreal and sometimes it was hard to see where the story was really leading but it was so much fun it didn’t matter. Later in the book, though, there were some passages that were quite sad and melancholy, which I thought gave the second half of the book a noticeably different feel to the first.
As you can probably tell by now, I loved this book, which I think proves that it doesn’t matter if something is described as a ‘western’, a ‘romance’, a ‘mystery’ or anything else: a good story is a good story and The Sisters Brothers was one of the best I’ve read this year.