Patrick deWitt’s novel, The Sisters Brothers, is a whole new style of Western. It follows two notorious conmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are brothers employed by a mysterious head honcho known as the Commodore, in the Californian gold rush of the 1850s. Told in the slow drawl of Eli Sisters, a psychopath with a slight conscience, The Sisters Brothers is Achilles and Patroclus in the Old West. Their journey from Oregon to California is a moral exodus — a noir version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with a “get rich or die trying” attitude. It is a compelling and exciting narrative that reinvents the traditional Western genre, creating a melting pot of guns, gold, horses and poignant observations on life.
Its striking cover art won The Sisters Brothers fourth place in the goodreads (www.goodreads.com) best cover art selection of 2011. The evocative Hamlet-esque entwined skulls introduce the inevitability and closeness of death before the reader has even turned to the first page. The typography of the novel continues to please throughout, with highly stylised section-breaks complete with Wild-West-inspired graphics and text. The two ‘Intermissions’ in the novel use these embellished graphics to separate prose that differs from the main plotline and they effectively create a change of scene that is almost cinematic.
Violence in The Sisters Brothers is explicit and vivid without being vulgar. It’s slick and stylised — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets Quentin Tarantino. DeWitt does not shy from brutality, illustrating gore in detail with ease: ‘His empty eyehole blinked, caving in on itself; his bloody tongue hung out of his mouth, dripping thickly into the dirt.’ Though I would not go as far as to agree with the book jacket that proclaims it be a black comedy, (that would largely depend upon whether or not you found burning horse with ‘popping eyeballs’ funny), deWitt’s sharp prose is sarcastic and captivating. The violence in the novel is not humorous, but rather a product of the wild world that is the real Wild West. Looking back, DeWitt does not see the comforting warmth of Little House on the Prairie, but a dangerous, savage land that has yet to reach civilisation.
This depiction of the world within which Eli and Charlie inhabit is superb. As the two brothers set off on their odyssey to kill the prospector, Hermann Kermit Warm, their surroundings are described with beautiful precision that make such places as 1850s California come to life with observations in Eli’s dry voice: ‘the water was translucent and three-foot trout strolled upriver, or hung in the current, lazy and fat.’ The novel should be read for its skilled writing alone and this was undoubtedly a factor in its short-listing for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. DeWitt has evolved as a writer, his ambitious debut novel, Ablutions, certainly shares some characteristics with The Sisters Brothers — namely a laconic, dysfunctional narrator and themes of alcoholism — but it delivers so much more. The Sisters Brothers is a melancholy, gripping tale that explores moral justice and the darkness of humankind. It challenges the conventions of the Western genre, successfully bending it to its will, and it keeps the reader engrossed until the very last page.
- Georgia-Karena Mannering