David's Reviews > The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
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's review
Apr 26, 2012

it was ok

I’ve wanted to read this Booker long-listed novel for quite some time based largely, I’ll admit, by the fantastic cover art by Dan Stiles. The publisher’s note claims the novel is darkly comedic and arresting. Hmmm… sounds good for my first Kindle read, right?

So, what’s it all about, Alfie?

The Sisters Brothers follows Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of of notorious killers for hire, as they make their way from the Oregon Trail to California in 1851 to kill an inventor named Herman Kermit Warm for their boss, The Commodore. Told entirely from the perspective of Eli, the book is a curious blend of western, road trip and noir genres.

As you’d expect, the brothers meet up with a cast of eccentric characters and increasingly desperate situations as they head west to kill. Besot with injury, illness, bad luck, sibling rivalry, suspicious motives and a one-eyed horse, Eli begins to question their choice of vocation and the possibility of life after the job. As the futility of their existence becomes clearer to Eli, the true distance between he and his brother is slowly revealed and both come to understand that every action has a consequence.

So much critical praise has been heaped on this novel that I feel slightly churlish in only giving it two stars but, I didn’t think it was all that great. Perhaps, I’d heard too much hype and came in expecting too much. Or maybe, we’re just in an all too familiar Emperor’s New Clothes situation.

DeWitt does a good job of establishing the base characters: Charlie - cold and cruel, an older brother always picking on his younger sibling; Eli - overweight with a temper, but inwardly always questioning the morality of their actions and trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, there’s very little character development beyond that. A bit good cop, bad cop, which is great in small doses but if that’s all you get through out the novel, it wears thin and makes for a very foreseeable resolution. Both brothers react to each situation in exactly the prescribed way that their stock characterisation would demand.

For example, the brothers meet a starving boy. Charlie disarms the boy and knocks him out cold with the butt of his rifle. Eli, wanting to do right by the kid, cooks him dinner and patiently sits with him until he can manage to eat again. As they depart, the boy wants to come with them. Charlie, of course, says no, Eli thinking they have a moral obligation to help the kid allows him to come with as long as the boy’s horse can keep up. The trio get separated but when reunited a chapter later, Eli fearing for the boy’s continued safety gives up a portion of his takings to allow the kid to return to family back East. Charlie scoffs and considers the gesture a waste of time and money, mocking Eli in the process.

Nothing really ground breaking or Earth shattering, is it?

Stylistically, I didn’t really warm to the novel. It is, by its nature, very episodic. While that isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing, the brevity of the episodes is. Clocking in at 246 pages on the Kindle spread out over 60 chapters, you end up with an average chapter size of 4 pages. That’s an average of 4 pages. Some lasted barely a page. I know that brevity is the alleged source of wit, but sometimes you need to get to know the characters and situations a bit better for them to have any appreciable impact.
With so many coming in and out of the story for so brief a time, you’re left with little other than the two main protagonists on which to focus or about whom to care. And given that their interactions with other are so fleeting, the brothers stagnate and ultimately bore.

There isn’t really an antagonist, per se, in the novel. The Commodore is set up as the figure head of everything that is wrong with their lifestyle and the chief physical obstacle to the Eli leaving it. Think a kind of a mob boss, where no one ever gets to leave the company. More than this, however, Eli is really only coming to terms with his inner morality. This sets up the primary issue, which was telegraphed from about page two: can Eli convince his brother to give up his life of crime with him or will he have to walk away from his only brother? When resolution does finally come, its swift and a bit silly. The epilogue seemed forced and falsely sentimental.

This could have been fascinating, heady stuff but given the terseness of the prose and the lack of any true character developments it just fell flat for me.

On the plus side, I ran across a word I had never seen before, which always thrills me: bivouacked. I had to look it up. I’ll leave you the same pleasure, though I don’t honestly know when I will ever use it again.

Much like The Sisters Brothers, if I’m honest.
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Lynn Someone bought this as a gift for me at Christmas and I'm afraid I have to agree with pretty much all you wrote. Just didn't do it form. Am I missing something??L

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