'The Sisters Brothers' by Patrick deWitt

'The Sisters Brothers' by Patrick deWitt will now forever make me think of the tiny island of Sipan, a short ferry ride off the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia, as I read the majority of this book in the two days we were there, back in June this year (I've written previously about an art gallery in Split from the same holiday), lazing happily in the sun. Croatia is not the most intuitive partner for this book, however, seeing as it is actually set in the US during the 1850s Gold Rush. It's also really good.

The story is that Eli and Charlie, the two Sisters brothers of the title, are hitmen on the trail of notorious prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (what a name!) through California, under the orders of the mercurial and untrustworthy Commodore. It's a classic Don Quixote/Odyssey type caper, with the inner journey at odds with the outer one and a whole load of unusual, charming and downright threatening characters  who you don't know whether to trust from one moment to the next. Eli is our narrator, and we find him increasingly sickened and disillusioned with the life he leads and the work that he does.

The humour of this book as a black as a pit of tar and in moments it's incredibly surreal and bemusing, but I felt that it veritably pulsed with verve and life. It's like not much else I've ever read either, which either means its rather original, or that my reading tastes have become too limited. Either way, this book was a refreshing break during my refreshing break, and I'd wholeheartedly recommend it.

Not that it's light reading though. The style is realist-surrealist-historical maybe (?), in that it has a historical setting, but is realist in a very modern way, whilst using the vernacular appropriate for the time, and is quite surreal, if that makes sense? Maybe if the Coen Brothers did a funny, free-wheeling, literary Western with a lot of dark humour, it might be a bit like this. There are a few particular instances of tooth-ache or horse illness or old crones casting spells that are downright disgusting, described with almost unbearable realist gore, that are also hugely compelling and memorable in a way that I almost wish they weren't, whilst the characters are complexly drawn and completely of their time. You just feel so bad for Eli, and confused about everyone else. I would never expect to find a noir Western so emotionally involving or so wholly creepy.
'Charlie's face had grown hard. 'This isn't your cabin, is it?'
At this she stiffened, and did not look to be breathing. She pulled back her rags, and in the firelight and lamplight I saw that she had almost no hair on her head, only white tufts here and there, and her skull was dented, appearing soft in places, pushed in like a piece of old fruit. 'Every heart has a tone,' she said to Charlie, 'just as every bell has one. Your heart's tone is most oppressive to hear, young man. It is hurtful to my ears, and your eyes hurt my eyes to look at them.'
A long silence followed with Charlie and the old witch simply staring at each other. I could not, from either of their expressions, understand what they were thinking. Eventually the woman rewrapped her skull and resumed her work, and Charlie lay down on the floor. I did not climb onto the bed, but lay down beside him, because I was frightened by the woman and thought it safest for us to sleep close together. I was so weak that despite my uneasiness I soon fell away into a dream state wherein I envisaged the room just as it was, thought I was standing by, watching my own sleeping body.'
This is a fab book and I kinda regret taking so long to read it after receiving it from the More4 TV Book Club at the beginning of the year. Here's Patrick deWitt himself talking about it to round things off, plus an excerpt from the show: 

Title: The Sisters Brothers
Author: Patrick deWitt
Publisher: Granta Books
Date: 2011
Format: Paperback, 325 pages, and I was sent it by Cactus TV/More4 TV Book Club.  


  1. I own a copy of this book! I don't know why I've been putting off reading it, but I have. You've convinced me to get over myself and five it a try :)

  2. Go for it! I'd put money on you loving it :)


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