The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Until I picked up The Sisters Brothers last month I had never read a western before and didn’t think I would ever want to read one. But after Patrick deWitt’s novel, with its unusual title and cover, appeared on the Booker Prize shortlist earlier this year and so many people were saying they enjoyed it, I thought I’d see what it was like.

The Sisters Brothers is set in the 1850s during the Gold Rush and has everything you would expect to find in a western – guns, horses, saloons, duels, drinking, fighting, and gold prospecting. I know this might not sound very appealing to a lot of you, but I hope you won’t let it put you off because at the heart of this novel is a wonderful story about the relationship between two brothers. They are Charlie and Eli Sisters, names that are feared throughout the wild west. Charlie and Eli are hired killers, who earn their living by taking orders from the mysterious Commodore. When the Commodore tells them that their next assignment is to find and kill the prospector Hermann Kermit Warm, the brothers set off on an eventful journey from Oregon to California.

The brothers encounter lots of memorable characters on their travels (including a ‘weeping man’, an orphaned boy and his horse, and a dentist who introduces Eli to the joys of the toothbrush) but the focus is always on Eli and Charlie themselves. Charlie is the more dominant and aggressive brother, while Eli is more cautious and sensitive, which causes some conflict between the two. I was pleased to find that both characters did develop and change, at least to some extent, over the course of the book. Charlie had seemed a completely unsympathetic character at first, but I later found that he had a bit more depth than I’d originally thought. And while Eli wasn’t exactly the most pleasant of people either, I couldn’t help liking him as he did at least have a conscience and wanted to be a better person – even if he didn’t always manage it.

The Sisters brothers are the type of characters we would more often read about from the opposite perspective, as the book’s villains – but in this book, with the story being narrated by Eli, we are supposed to accept them as our heroes (or anti-heroes, maybe). It’s a testament to Patrick deWitt’s writing that he makes it possible for us to care so much about a pair of murderers and I think this is due partly to Eli being such an appealing narrator. Some of the dialogue is very funny and there’s lots of dark humour, but I should probably warn you that there are also some fairly graphic scenes of violence and cruelty, though I think this is to be expected considering the setting and the profession of the two main characters.

The chapters are short and there’s always something happening: in the first fifty pages alone, Eli is bitten by a venomous spider, his horse gets attacked by a bear and a witch tries to put a curse on the brothers. It all felt slightly surreal and sometimes it was hard to see where the story was really leading but it was so much fun it didn’t matter. Later in the book, though, there were some passages that were quite sad and melancholy, which I thought gave the second half of the book a noticeably different feel to the first.

As you can probably tell by now, I loved this book, which I think proves that it doesn’t matter if something is described as a ‘western’, a ‘romance’, a ‘mystery’ or anything else: a good story is a good story and The Sisters Brothers was one of the best I’ve read this year.

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15 thoughts on “The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

  1. FleurFisher says:

    This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed someone who doesn’t usually read westerns loving this book. I’ve seen it in the library and I’ll pick it up one day, but other things are calling me at the moment,

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed it but don’t think I would want to read a lot of books of this type. I think part of its appeal for me was that it’s so different to the books I usually read.

  2. Mel says:

    Wow, you’ve convinced me I think. I was curious about this one, because although there has been some hype, I couldn’t really tell what it was about from just the hype. You’re so right, an enjoyable tale well told can come in a lot of different forms.

  3. Anbolyn says:

    I usually avoid tales of the ‘Old West’, maybe because I live in the West and am surrounded by the lore and myths of it every day. But l like when authors and filmmakers put a contemporary spin on the western so this sounds very appealing to me. Another one for the TBR…

  4. Richard Reeder says:

    I also enjoyed the book, and would never had read it unless it was on the Booker shortlist. You make a great point about a story needs to be a story. This particular story had a captivating flair that maintained the reader’s attention throughout the novel.

    • Helen says:

      I’m sure I would never have even thought about reading it if it hadn’t been nominated for the Booker. I’m glad it did come to my attention as I would have missed out on a great story.

  5. Buried In Print says:

    It *is* funny, isn’t it?! But not because it’s funny-funny, but because somehow he gets us to buy-in to Eli’s voice, and suddenly things that you wouldn’t think are funny *are* funny. I love that. It’s tremendously entertaining, I think, and I believe it’s a tough act to pull off, but deWitt makes it look so easy!

  6. Christopher Meades says:

    Like you, I really enjoyed this book. Usually, award winning novels are chosen because they challenge the reader (but they aren’t very fun to read). This book received so much attention because it’s compelling and intelligent.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it too, Christopher. I often struggle with award nominees because as you say, they tend not to be much fun, but I was surprised by a few of the books that were nominated for this year’s Booker Prize. I thought both this one and Jamrach’s Menagerie were very enjoyable.

  7. yvonne says:

    Hi Helen,

    I have recently read my first ‘Western Romantic Mystery’ novel and thoroughly enjoyed it, although I have yet to try a pure Western.

    I like to try as many different books as possible, regardless of their genre, I either love them, or hate them!

    I never take into account whether a book has been shortlisted, or indeed won a literary prize. I tend to think that all these prize awards are very over-rated, indeed they are all completely subjective and strictly a matter of personal taste.

    I would certainly be prepared to give this book a try, just for the experience and for the nostalgia of it all, as I used to love watching Westerns on television, as a child.

    Great review by the way.

    • Helen says:

      Not many of the books that appear on literary prize shortlists ever appeal to me, to be honest. This one was great, though – I hope you enjoy it if you do decided to give it a try!

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