Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: The Sisters Brothers

I love the cover of this book. More books need awesome covers like this. I also happened to love the text of the book as well. Isn't it great when things work out like that?

With all the buzz and much-deserved accolades given to The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, I feel like it would be redundant to rehash the plot but I also feel some kind of summary is necessary so I'll do my best to keep it short: Charlie and Eli Sisters are muscle-for-hire en route to do a job in California during the Gold Rush. While traveling across the country, Eli begins to question why they do what they do and what kind of life he'd like to have instead. The journey to and from the west coast ends up changing both brothers irrevocably.

There are so many great things about this book, but the one I found most interesting was the narrator: Eli Sisters. Being told first-person by one half of the brothers was unexpected, in all honesty, but it worked. Eli is the one who is questioning what they do and what else they could do and doesn't have the same lust for killing that older brother Charlie has. He's more of a moral compass as well, but always fiercely loyal to Charlie. Eli also shuns many western cliches: he's not fond of the drink; he has feelings that go beyond physical for the whores; he loves his horse enough that he turns down a better steed to keep his wonky, one-eyed wonder; he worries about his weight; and he's thrilled at the idea of brushing his teeth. (Seriously, how often does personal hygiene crop up in westerns?)

But the book isn't played as some kind of odd couple romp; the comic elements are decidedly dark and though Charlie and Eli are different, they are brothers and they stick together. Also, we never get into Charlie's head; there's no alternating narrators, just Eli, and I like that. We're taken on this journey with the two title characters and we learn about them both, but only through the eyes and mind of Eli. And while both men suffer, it's Charlie who suffers the most - but again, we only know how much based on Eli's perceptions.

Using the Gold Rush as the background is also wonderful, as it allows a variety of secondary gold-obsessed characters to come and go to comedic and melodramatic effect. It also puts the reader in familiar territory as we all know of the Gold Rush and the dreams and greed it inspired. And of the myriad characters, including the brothers, it's hard to pinpoint who's "good" and who's "bad". Of course, some are worse than other and some are better than others, but it's not like other westerns where you know who to root for; the good guys don't rid up in white hats at the last second to save the maiden tied on the train tracks. Maybe I'm generalizing a bit as I don't know if all westerns clearly identify the good and the bad, but I appreciate a book more when there is that ambiguity and gray area between good and bad.

I think Eli as narrator is my favourite element of this book. The more I think about it, the more it feels daring and unconventional. (It could be I feel that way because I don't read enough, but whatever.) This book was a mainstay on literary awards' shortlists (and award recipient) for good reason: it's a smart, interesting book with intriguing characters, set during a time in history we're all familiar with. I don't know enough about westerns in literature to know if this refreshes or invokes other cliches about the genre, but it's more than just white hat vs black hat in a shoot out at high noon in some corral.

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