Patrick DeWitt: The Sisters Brothers (reprise)

Next to the map of Warm’s claim, Morris had made a smudged drawing of the man; but he might have been standing at my side and I would not have known it, it was so clumsy a rendering. I mentioned this to Charlie and he said, ‘Morris is waiting for us at a hotel in San Fransisco. He will point Warm out and we will be on our way. It’s a good place to kill someone, I have heard. When they are not busily burning the entire town down, they are distracted by its endless rebuilding.’


Why I read it

The truth is this: my primary need wasn’t to find something for myself to read, but rather something to make others read, because it was my turn to choose a book for Book Club.

In the context of what had come before it seemed to me that I wanted something less emotionally heavy than In One Person, more gritty than The Rosie Project, and less philosophically dense than Aldous Huxley’s Island. I also just wanted to pick something people would like. Given that it’s tricky to check a book will be likeable when you haven’t yet read it, I took a recommendation from my co-blogger’s first post and decided on The Sisters Brothers – thus setting the scene for our first-ever dual posting on a book.

Why it’s great

In his sparse and measured voice, notorious assassin Eli Sisters describes a colourful series of events set in motion when he and his brother Charlie are contracted to find and kill a man; DeWitt’s talent is to make them all eminently believable, even as the book introduces elements of magic realism in the last half. There is the horse with the exploding eyeball; a forever weeping traveler; an old woman with ‘oyster flesh eyes’ who puts a hex on a door; a dandy who has been paid to spy on an eccentric scientist; a boy abandoned in the wastelands; and drugs like brandy, anaesthetics, and above all, a wondrous new invention called toothpaste.

As Eli comes to increasingly question his occupation and his relationship with his brother Charlie, an interesting and opposite thing occurs for the reader – we start to accept more and more what they are driven to do, and how they have been driven to act. This is the Wild West, after all, both literally and metaphorically. Eli and Charlie might be killers, but they are in a world where it’s kill or be killed, and they just happen to be better at it than most. By the time of the showdown in the barn, the murder of an innocent seems pragmatic – and near the end of the story there is a killing that I suspect no reader would condemn.

But even as we are inured to the violent nature of the times, there are things throughout the narrative that remind us with a jolt – of humour, shock or disgust – of how foreign the Sisters Brothers’ world is from ours. In addition to the casual and ever-present nature of death and madness, there is the frontier attitude to chemical pollution, and the revelatory nature of tooth brushing, amongst others. And there is such a joyful attention to bizarre details in the midst of pain and suffering – the way one grotesquely poisoned man spits into the air and it lands in a gob on his forehead, for example – that I found it constantly delightful and horrific in parallel.

Fundamentally, though, the book’s success seems to be due to the character of Eli, a sensitive soul inside a Wild West killer, and a protagonist that seemed to fascinate every reader in our book club.

Why it’s not necessarily a great book-club book

Herein lies the problem: everyone loved this book. Aside from one question (What was the point of the Intermissions?) and one disagreement on interpretation (What did the ending signify to you?) we mostly just swapped stories of the bits that we’d liked. No fewer than three of us had all dog-eared as a favourite the page with the ‘Describing Problem’ line.

And this, I guess, is the interesting question about book clubs: does the pleasure come in the reading of the book or the post-read communal fathoming? If the latter, it may be tested by our next book, ‘In Certain Circles’ by Elizabeth Harrower. If the former – then we came out ahead with The Sisters Brothers.

dewitt_mostlyread (Small)

This book was mostly read for book club, and mostly read in the bath.






2 responses to “Patrick DeWitt: The Sisters Brothers (reprise)

    • Yes, I’d definitely recommend it. Once you pick it up, you will wonder why you kept it waiting in the pile so long!

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