According to the Man Booker Prize site, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt is ‘a darkly funny, offbeat western about a reluctant assassin and his murderous brother’. Oregon, 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters, notorious professional killers, are on their way to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. On the way, the brothers have a series of unsettling and violent experiences in the Darwinian landscape of Gold Rush America. Charlie makes money and kills anyone who stands in his way; Eli doubts his vocation and falls in love. And they bicker a lot. Then they get to California, and discover that Warm is an inventor who has come up with a magical formula, which could make all of them very rich. What happens next is utterly gripping, strange and sad. Told in deWitt’s darkly comic and arresting style, The Sisters Brothers is the kind of western the Coen Brothers might write – stark, unsettling and with a keen eye for the perversity of human motivation. Like his debut novel Ablutions, it is a novel about the things you tell yourself in order to be able to continue to live the life you find yourself in, and what happens when those stories no longer work. It is an inventive and strange and beautifully controlled piece of fiction and displays an exciting expansion of Dewitt’s range.’
The book was a controversial choice for the Man Booker 2011 shortlist; would it create similar controversy amongst the members of Berwick Book Group?
As usual, the response was mixed.
Martin wanted to run it out of town. The word ‘codswallop’ was used with vehemence several times. He thought the plot was unrealistic, and the ending farcical. Amazon reviewers who gave the book a negative reception were in agreement with Martin on this point. One wrote: ‘It’s like Charles Dickens couldn’t manage to finish Great Expectations and got Enid Blyton to finish it off for him.’ Martin also couldn’t identify with any of the characters; he found them totally ineffectual in every area of life, except in killing or inflicting pain on others, and he found the casual and graphic violence off-putting.
Barbara was not impressed and thought she probably would not have finished the book if it were not for the book group meeting. There was plenty to admire in the writing but it did not engage and left her feeling detached.
Margaret enjoyed the book. She thought the way the violence was begat by the violence of the father was realistic, and enjoyed the encapsulation both of the time and of the madness of the gold rush. She also liked how the dynamic between the brothers changed towards the end.
Mike wondered whether the brothers’ manner of speech was too literary, although he had subsequently read that the language was accurate and realistic for the time. He commented particularly on deWitt’s portrayal of Eli (the story is told in first person from Eli’s point of view), the touching story thread of his quest to find love, and how his desperation caused him to fall for every woman he encountered.
Glynis did not enjoy the plot or the subject matter of the book, but thought the writing style was beautiful and would read other deWitt novels just to revisit his winning way with a sentence.
Helen commented positively on the portrayal of the relationship between the two brothers. She also particularly liked the incidental details, such as the toothbrush episodes, and approved of the final chapter, when they went home to mum.
Jill got the dark humour and found herself chuckling aloud several times as she read the book.
I thought this picaresque ‘Western’ (or should that be anti-Western?), focussing as it did on the ‘bit players’ usually portrayed on-screen by character actors, was an interesting and original read. I agree with Martin about the faintly ludicrous ‘gold potion’ plot strand, but I was with Helen in her appreciation of the touching final chapter where the brothers are reunited with their mother. I also agree with Margaret and Mike on the excellently drawn relationship between Eli and Charlie and I felt that deWitt totally inhabited the character of Eli, creating in me a queasy empathy for the character, despite Eli’s murderous occupation and his deeply flawed nature. I appreciated the beautiful writing as much as Glynis did; the passage describing the shop bathed in golden light was one of the highlights for me, demonstrating as it did Eli’s longing for a ‘good’ life.
The discussion ranged far and wide and included:
The Characters. Eli and Charlie Sisters and the dynamic of their relationship, but also the colourful collection of secondary characters –Morris, the wonderfully-named Herman Kermitt Warm, various crazy prospectors, whores, shop-keepers, an old woman with magical powers, a young boy abandoned by his father, a failed dentist – and Tub the horse.
The Structure. Picaresque in the tradition of Don Quixote – the equine equivalent of a road movie, with self contained stories built around the secondary characters and carried within the overarching story of the Sisters brothers’ final job. We all agreed that the structure – with its set pieces – would make a good movie.
The Humour. Jill appreciated the ‘dark’ or ‘black’ humour mentioned in many reviews, and most of us found humour in the incidentals, such as the toothbrush episodes, or Eli’s attempts to diet, rather than in the more ‘out there’ incidents, some of which revolved around various cruelties done to Tub, Eli’s long-suffering horse.
The Morality. Themes of retribution, just deserts, redemption. Charlie loses his gun hand. Their greed for gold is not rewarded – they lose everything.
The Genre. Was it a Western? An anti-western? A Jacobean/Revenge Tragedy? AFable? A relationship novel or bromance? All genres were discussed but the majority of us plumped for Western
This led to a fascinating discussion asking ‘what is a Western?’ Is it a story set in the Wild West? Is it a particular archetype/morality tale which can be set anywhere? What is a modern Western? Is it – No Country for Old Men, Brokeback Mountain, Last of the Mohicans? Has the genre declined because of the ‘Injun’ problem – it is no longer acceptable to portray an act of genocide against native Americans in heroic terms – where does the Western go now?
Finally, members recommended a number of good reads, including:
Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears
Witch Light by Susan Fletcher
The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold
A Fish Caught in Time by Samantha Weinberg
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Next meeting: 6.30-8.00pm, Tuesday 3rd July at The Barrels in Bridge Street.
We’ll be continuing the tradition of doing something a bit different to end the year. The theme this year is: ‘Banned Books’. Everyone is choosing a book which has been banned at some point, somewhere in the world. We’ll each be sharing our thoughts on our chosen book, and bringing a short passage to read aloud.