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Book Review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

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The Sisters Brothers seems an unlikely candidate for critical acclaim, being a pretty rough and violent tale of two brothers in the 1850s Wild West. Yet it made the Man Booker shortlist in 2011 and received rave reviews. It tells the story of Eli Sisters and his brother Charlie, notorious assassins, as they travel to San Francisco to kill a man. Eli’s starting to think about giving up this career for something more peaceful; but Charlie loves the violent life, and Eli seems willing to choose his brother over all else.

When I started the book, I was really thrown by DeWitt’s use of dialect. In this tale of Wild West assassins I expected shortened words, poor grammar, lots of swearing. Instead you get a formal dialect that even the most educated person doesn’t use. An example is the infrequent and inconsistent use of contractions, as in: “Morris is waiting for us at a hotel in San Francisco. He will point Warm out and we will be on our way. It’s a good place to kill someone, I have heard.”

This distracted me so much I nearly put the book down. But people recommended it so strongly I pushed on, and while I still found the dialogue stilted, the story draws you in, and the character of Eli quickly wins you over.

In many ways, this book plays on all the stereotypes of the Wild West story. We have crazy prospectors, thugs, whores, crime bosses, and the man who is trying to go straight but life just won’t let him. What’s startling – and powerful – about this book is how DeWitt can go from base thuggery to poetry in the space of a single page. The other thing that really stands out is that Eli is more than just a sensitive outlaw. His struggles to endear himself to women, to earn the respect of his brother, to find peace within himself, and even to be a good son, make him much more than a stock character.

That, and the story just doesn’t stop. It’s exactly what you want in a Wild West/road trip kind of tale.

From the reviews I read, I worried the book would be too violent for me. It wasn’t. Everything about the lives of these characters is violent, and has to be for the story to work. In fact the part of this book that had me squirming the most involved surgery on Eli’s horse. Although violence towards animals often bothers us more than violence to humans, doesn’t it? Something about them being helpless and innocent, and not understanding what’s happening to them. I can tell you most of the human deaths in this book didn’t bother me much.

This book was a 100 percent worth the read, even without contractions.

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