I’m going to tell you right now, when it comes to reading, I’m not one to get too caught up with genre. Literary fiction, fantasy, crime, young adult… they’re all good to me. Just tell me a good story, I say, and I’ll be happy. So when it came to Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into what literary compartment to put it into. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for fiction, finalist for the Mann Booker Prize and The Giller Prize, it’s been pegged as western, humor, picaresque, even a genre-bender. Maybe it’s all of these things. But to me, it really doesn’t matter. Patrick DeWitt takes us on a journey that paints a picture of the complex relationship between two brothers and the conflicted inner life of its narrator, Eli. The story, at times brutal at others hilarious, is ultimately compelling.
Eli and Charlie Sisters are the two brothers of the book’s title. They are notorious hit men, the mention of whose names strikes fear into the hearts of people they meet as they travel from Oregon City to Sacramento during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Their assignment: to dispose of one Hermann Kermitt Warm on behalf of their unscrupulous employer, the Commodore. But when they finally meet their target, things don’t go as they were meant to and the story takes the brothers on a path they hadn’t anticipated.
As they travel from Oregon to California, Eli and Charlie encounter some strange characters — like the curse-wielding old woman, the dentist who is an expert failure, and the dirt-brewing prospector — which lead to some pretty ridiculous situations. The best way I can describe it is to say it’s a cross between Don Quixote and Pulp Fiction… minus the windmills and the royale with cheese.
Charlie and Eli, though bound by brotherly love, could not be more different. As Eli puts it, “Our blood is the same, we just use it differently.” Charlie is a heavy drinking, womanizing ruthless killer. Eli is the brawn of the operation, but a gentle soul at heart. He cares for his pathetic horse, Tub, and is terrified of spiders. He grapples constantly with questions of honour, morality and happiness. It’s these contrasts and internal contradictions that bring the characters alive.
Sex, violence, redemption, love, morality… who knew you could get all that from a Western. Or humor. Or whatever.
What about you? Have you read The Sisters Brothers? Let me know what you thought in the comments below.