16 October 2011

Review 43: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (Man Booker Shortlist)

To put it plainly, this story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, hired assassins is my favourite (so far) on the Man Booker shortlist. This is the first Western to be included on the Man Booker shortlist but whilst the book is unmistakeably a western, it's genre doesn't really define it. It seems to defy descriptions to a large extent; it's easy to read but not an easy read, it makes you laugh but it's not a comedy, it's not a complicated novel but it's characters certainly are. In fact it's real strength lies in the incredibly strong narrative voice of Eli Sisters.

Eli and Charlie have been sent by the mysterious Commodore to assassinate Hermann Kermit Warm for an unidentified theft from the Commodore. The brothers set out from Oregon to a Californian gold mining town to meet their contact there and track down Warm. Along the way they encounter various characters from a perpetually weeping man to a dentist who introduces Eli to toothbrushes.

As I mentioned above, I felt this novel was so good because of the very strong first person narrative from Eli. DeWitt has created a character of contradictionns; Eli is an assassin who has killed many people in the past and yet speaks almost like a child. Eli is generally impressed by the world and sees the best in the people  he comes across, including falling for two women on the brothers journeys. He is sentimental and gentle apart from when his brother whips him into a rage and he becomes a violent, emotionally detached killer. I have never felt so sympathetic towards a murderer. Eli is constantly flailing between the two elements of his personality. I read one review which spoke about Eli's guilt about his murders but I think what makes him so interesting is that he doesn't really feel guilt per se. His desire to get out of the assassination trade is based more on a love of simpler things rather than because he finds the killing repulsive. He doesn't enjoy the killing and regrets it when extra people are killed but does not seem to feel any sense of guilt or shame.

The supporting characters are all strong as well from Charlie, the older brother who manipulates and bullies Eli and yet clearly cares deeply about him to Hermann Warm when the brothers finally catch up with him and discover why the Commodore wants him dead. Eli meets two women along the way that he becomes somewhat infatuated with in a rather teenage manner. His brother, who prefers made up prostitutes, is entertained by Eli's attraction to downtrodden publicans and secretaries. His attempts to go on a diet to impress a grumpy landlady are endearing and funny both to us and Charlie.


I really enjoyed the way this book is written. I don’t imagine that assassins really spoke in the very precise way that Eli and Charlie speak in but DeWItt still manages to make it feel authentic. It’s like a slightly off version of history – a kind of heightened version of what really took place. I feel like DeWitt’s style of writing is very clever as you almost don’t realise how pleasurable reading his work is; it’s not overtly literary or there to make you think about the language but he still manages to create an enormously effective literary novel. I like a writer makes their words so seamless with the story that you don’t notice it’s worth until after you’ve finished or when you’re not reading and you can’t wait to get back into it rather than being aware of the clever techniques etc whilst I’m reading.

Ultimately, there wasn’t anything about this book that I didn’t like. Not to say it was perfect but I can’t think of anything that is worth criticising. I enjoyed the story and characters, the language and little touches like the font and the Intermissions. I liked that it was quirky without being weird.  I found it engrossing and entertaining and also affecting and touching which is why it is my favourite on the Man Booker shortlist. This book is a true pleasure to read. 

1 comment:

  1. I thought this book was great. One of the few major award winners that is accessible to the average reader.

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