by Patrick deWitt
Some books don’t really live up to the hype surrounding them. The two that spring to mind here are The Alchemist and Good Omens, both of which were repeatedly recommended to me and seemingly universally praised, but I thought were just okay, at best. With multiple awards won, being in the finals for numerous others, and receiving great praise from people whose opinions I respect, I was worried that The Sisters Brothers would fall into this category. Thankfully, I felt it was deserving of these accolades. (Of course, I say this without having read its competition in these literary contests, so take that statement with whatever weight it deserves.)
The Sisters Brothers follows Eli and Charlie Sisters, two notorious murderers in the 1850s during the California gold rush, as they seek to kill a man who stole from their boss. We’re served to a picturesque adventure in the Wild West that offers its share of violent action, but is overall a quiet, reflective affair, in which Eli reflects on the terrible lives he and his brother lead while they gradually approach their destination. Early into The Sisters Brothers, I had a premonition that deWitt would resemble Vladimir Nabokov, in making me like a protagonist that he would later make perform despicable acts, but it was different here. Yes, I liked Eli early on, and, yes, he did some cruel and questionable things as the story progressed, but I never hated him by the end of it. I suspect that deWitt was successful with this because he gave us ample time early on to get acquainted with the brothers before starting up the action proper. Because of this, I was rooting for Eli more than I otherwise may not have been, and I was more understanding when he wasn’t necessarily a stand-up citizen. Or, perhaps it’s just because Eli tries to do right throughout all the wrong in his life, but I feel that the superb writing did at least something to sway my opinion in the protagonist’s favour.
Though I felt that The Sisters Brothers was never tedious, you may be disappointed if you go in expecting nothing more than a Western shoot-’em-up, as several reviewers seem to have done. The book was beautifully written, even when brutal, and deWitt’s greatest accomplishment here was giving such a bad man such a big heart.