The Sisters Brothers (2011) – Patrick deWITT

The Sisters Brothers stood out on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist this year for me mainly because it is published by Granta. I’ve only just properly started reading their rather excellent magazine, and it’s nice to see smaller publishers getting attention with prizes like these. I also read very little (read: no) Canadian literature, and while I’m aware this novel probably isn’t indicative of all Canadian literature, it is by a Canadian. And that’s all that matters, right?

Eli and Charlie Sisters (get it?) are on the move. Their boss, the Commodore, has sent them from Oregon Territory to San Francisco, to assassinate Hermann Warm, a man with something the Commodore wants. But their man in San Francisco, Morris, has gone AWOL, and when they discover what he has done, their plans begin to change. Dreams they thought were out of reach suddenly become tangible, though, as the brothers discover, every dream comes at a terrible price.

How far can an author go, pushing the boundaries of his (or her) readers’ desire to connect with characters, no matter how bad they are? This is the question, I suspect, Patrick deWitt sat down and asked himself before writing The Sisters Brothers. I love Dexter – I truly think it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen – so I have some history with sympathising with serial killers. But deWitt makes it look even easier. Partially, I think, because there are two serial killers here, and you are encouraged to sympathise with the lesser of two evils. It is clear Charlie Sisters is a psychopath, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. He kills with almost no thought, and seems to genuinely enjoy it.

Eli, on the other hand, seems as though he has simply resigned himself to this life, as though he would leave it if he could. Of course, he is our narrator, so no doubt he is bending the truth somewhat, and his own acts of violence (of which there are many) are somewhat skipped over, in favour of his telling us he sometimes has trouble controlling his temper, as though that is an excuse. He also seems to fall for every lady he meets, constructing himself as something of a loveably hopeless romantic. The language, too, makes us want to believe in him – rather than taking the True History of the Kelly Gang path of an uneducated narrator, Eli is erudite to the point of formality, and polite to the point of being overbearing.

It also helps that The Sisters Brothers is also hilarious, particularly in the first two thirds or so. Eli’s attempts to chat women up are awkward and painful to read, in a Fawlty Towers kind of way. The brothers’ relationships with their horses cracked me up, too. Hands down, my favourite character is Tub. The horse. Never has an animal character provided me with so man reasons to laugh, and so many reasons to cry. He is also the character I felt least guilty about liking. Eli also has to visit a dentist early on in the novel, and receives this magical new invention called a toothbrush. I didn’t think oral hygiene jokes could be made, but deWitt, to his credit, has provided many. The wonder with which everyone approaches this marvellous tool is, quite frankly, one of the best running gags in all of literature.

The setting is also important, and I think it’s easy to forget that this is set during San Francisco’s gold rush. This was a moment in time when people were moving west in the hope of striking it rich. In many ways, it was the original, and ultimate, get rich quick scheme, and no one seems to be immune from it. The men and women the brothers’ meet on their travels are, with almost no exception, a little unhinged, the promise of golden riches having sent them over the edge. Of course, the question of whether the brothers will also succumb to this desire is the question that takes us into the third act (see, I have learnt something in my English degree), and the results are at once touching and disturbing.

The Sisters Brothers is a clever novel. Patrick deWitt is clearly an author with a great gift, and the amount of time he has spent ensuring his audience sympathises with his frankly criminal main characters is a testament to his abilities. I don’t know whether the rest of the novel is as strong as this central conceit, though not enough to make me not recommend it. This is a fun novel, and marks Patrick deWitt as a talent to watch in the future.

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