Author: Patrick DeWitt
Mood: If you want a Western that reads like a ride-along on an increasingly awkward horse with a friendly hitman who is going through some stuff and wants to talk it out but sometimes he has to stop and kill a bunch of people.
The first time I read The Sisters Brothers was when it first came out, and I was still working at a public library.
I spotted it on a book club display, and was instantly drawn to its deliciously weird red cover. I always judge books by their covers, and let me tell you: this one is 100% accurate because the book is so bloody good.
And I mean bloody because there is a CRAPLOAD OF BLOODSHED.
The weird thing is that it doesn’t read like a murder-y book. It’s violent yet nonchalant, and unexpectedly funny in its matter-of-factness. You get this gripping tale of the gold rush fever and of good versus evil in the Wild West, blended with a slow exploration of manliness and family dynamics.
The Sisters Brothers is probably not for all Western fans. If you like those skinny, fast-paced gunslinger novels, or sweeping epics like L’Amour and McMurtry, it’s none of that. This book is not at all concerned with Western tropes and traditions.
Instead, it gives you an all-access pass to the unfiltered thoughts of a personable hitman as he travels from place to place during the gold rush, wins and loses money, struggles with his identity, and kills people.
The Sisters Brothers begins with Charlie and Eli Sisters heading out on a new hit job for ‘The Commodore’. Eli is your narrator. He’s the younger and much larger brother who craves Charlie’s respect and affection. He’s is quickly established as a subordinate who is treated like an idiot by his brother, his boss, and pretty much everyone he encounters.
Charlie is quick-tempered, bossy, full of himself, and likes to get drunk. And boy, does he love killing.
The Sisters brothers are after a man named Hermann Kermit Warm, though they don’t know why. They have to go from Oregon to California to find and kill him, and their journey wanders through a series of misadventures with a spider, a witch, bears, trappers, and of course, women.
When they get to California, it turns out Mr. Warm is no ordinary target. Suddenly they have to decide whose side they want to be on – the good, the bad, or their own.
I haven’t enjoyed a Canadian novel this much since The Winter Family. (Technically I read The Sisters Brothers first, but wording it properly for my feelings on a re-read is too much like math.)
The thing is, I can’t even explain what I like so much about The Sisters Brothers. Normally I prefer a faster pace, and more explicit violence or more obvious humour, if that’s the type of book it is. I can’t even say what I think is the point of the book or what you’re supposed to take away. But something about it sits just right with me.
Eli is a unique narrator, because he’s not your typical Western lead. He’s obviously not a flashy hero, given that he’s a contract killer, but he’s not the kind of Clint Eastwood-style antihero we’re used to either.
And yet his quiet, observant nature, keen self awareness, and no-frills mentality make him the perfect choice to give you the straight facts in a wholly realistic Western. Instead of glorified action and unnecessarily long descriptions of the scenery, Eli’s steady conversation with you, the reader, feels authentic for a man of the 1850s.
Charlie, on the other hand, is obnoxious from start to finish. I admit I was hoping he would die; sorry not sorry.
But luckily this book is PACKED with vibrant minor characters that fill every inch of the space around the brothers. Although Charlie’s bad attitude drives much of Eli’s commentary, you’re never alone with them for long. Someone thoroughly fascinating always comes along to take you on a mini-journey within the overall story.
And throughout it all (or most of it, anyway), you have the antics of Eli’s poor horse, Tub.
The Sisters Brothers is unquestionably a fresh piece of Western storytelling. Each character is thoroughly thought out, and not a single one of their escapades feels like you already know it from a gazillion other Westerns.
With that said, it doesn’t leave you thoroughly satisfied – although maybe that’s the point. What hooks you and keeps you reading is the interactions of the characters and a curiosity about what weird thing could possibly happen next, not some quest that gets wrapped up neatly at the end. The Sisters Brothers is extremely well-written and absorbing, but you do have to be in the right mood for a linear journey that punishes good people and leaves so much unanswered.
And I will never get over the part that involves a horse and a spoon and I can’t say more, other than that shit haunts you. Literally any time someone has mentioned the book or movie in the last decade, I think of that scene.
If you’re a fan of character-driven stories, unique perspectives that make niche genres more accessible, or award-winning Canadian authors… it is definitely worth a read.