Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Sisters Brothers

Another slight change of direction this time, something of a latter-day western no less, The Sisters Brothers by the Canadian writer Patrick deWitt.

Set in 1851 during the Californian Gold Rush, The Sisters Brothers follows the eponymous Sisters brothers, Eli and Charlie, as they journey from Oregon City to San Francisco. Sent by the Commodore to track down Hermann Warm, a prospector caught up in gold fever, the brothers' journey south crosses the paths of a diverse range of of characters and agendas. Some want help from the brothers, some want merely to share their story with the brothers, while some wish the brothers ill, an unwise course of action given the brothers' talents. As their journey southwards continues, Eli, who narrates the novel, begins to question their mission, who exactly they are doing it for, and their wider vocation in life. Is working as henchmen for a shadowy "big man" either defensible or worthy of the Sisters brothers?

This one came recommended by C after her book group read it a few months back. While it got something of a mixed reception there, she was one of its fans and figured that I might wind up being one too. And, what do you know, she was right.

But it's still far from a straightforward book to like. It's a bit of an episodic and rambling shaggy dog tale that reads a little like I'd imagine a Quentin Tarantino western might look like. Which is to say that it features a pair of philosophical gangsters and a not immodest body count. Well, I guess that it only really features a single philosophical gangster - Charlie is far more enamoured of his career path, and its benefits, than is his more thoughtful sibling, Eli. But their chosen career as well as their observations on the events that befall them as well as life in general, which are quite endearing at times (for instance, Eli's discovery of the toothbrush), reminded me more than just a little of Jules and Vincent.

The novel's episodic nature takes a bit of getting used to as well. It introduces and dispatches characters at quite a rate, such that, by the end, it feels like there really are only two characters, Eli and Charlie. But the interludes - which include a "witch", an inexplicably crying man, a boy who's the only survivor of a raid on a wagon train, and a terminally ill bookkeeper - are so diverse as to always be enjoyably interesting. And they also serve to paint quite a vivid picture of the social landscape - such as it is - of the time. On this point, The Sisters Brothers is yet another counter to the rather romantic view that we often have of the "wild west". deWitt paints it as a pretty arbitrary and violent arena where gold fever ensures that might is usually "right", and where women pretty much only occupy the "service sector". The description of the San Francisco that the brothers visit is particularly notable on this point, being simultaneously a fascinating and appalling place.

The main strength of the novel for me was the way in which it's told by Eli. deWitt gives him a nicely understated tone and way of describing things - even quite outlandish things, such as when he calms down a dying man that he's just shot. He is also, for a hired gun, something of a naive and likeable softie. He has a strangely touching relationship with his doomed horse, Tub, and he's (usually) polite and honourable with women he meets. Unfortunately for Eli, the women that he likes either appear to have drifted into opportunistic prostitution, a fact that Charlie won't let him forget, or are even more doomed than his horse. But he makes for a perennially interesting narrator and deWitt gives him a great and distinctive voice.

There are a couple of things that are a little less satisfying, however. Principally, what it's all about? While there's a journey, and some character growth along the way, I'm not sure that I drew out what I was supposed to as I travelled with the brothers along the way. Perhaps it is just about the journey, and the time that the novel is set in, but Eli's grappling with his conscience seems to suggest otherwise - although I'd certainly concede that Eli's thoughts seem fairly obvious ones rather than deep truths. Also, for a novel that seems to be trying to paint a credible portrait of the time and place, it throws a bit of a spanner in the works with something of an implausible MacGuffin in the shape of Warm's formula. While it's not completely "out there", and it does help give the novel something of a shapely resolution, I never entirely bought it as a concept, and it served to undermine a lot of deWitt's earlier good work in creating a credible mid-19th century setting.

Overall, I'd have given it a 7 / 10 at Annie's book group. It's easily the most distinctive of the books I've read of late, even if I still haven't quite worked out what deWitt is saying with it - if anything, that is!

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