This is my review of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.
For months I avoided reading this tale of two contract-killer brothers since I imagined it would be gratuitously violent and suspected its Man Booker shortlisting was a gimmicky attempt to popularise the award. I was wrong to the extent that this is a well-written novel, an entertaining page-turner with an original and intriguing approach, a black comedy in its mix of wry humour and grim brutality.
Charlie and Eli, inappropriately surnamed "Sisters", a name which strikes fear in all those familiar with their reputation, are hired by the vicious "Commodore" to murder a gold prospector called Hermann Warm. Their journey from Oregon to San Francisco proves to be an 1850s Wild West Odyssey, in that they encounter a succession of strange characters and situations. In the course of this, the brothers' personalities and some explanations for their violent behaviour are gradually revealed.
Whereas Charlie is a psychopath, although his habit of losing himself in brandy suggests an uneasy conscience, the narrator Eli comes across as a more sympathetic character, often thoughtful and kind to others, except when a black mist of anger descends upon him, a condition often cynically manipulated by his more dominant brother. Despite their continual bickering, a strong bond binds these two.
The moral ambiguity in the novel made me uneasy, in that you may find yourself wanting the brothers to escape justice, despite the terrible crimes they have committed for money, and even liking Eli, although he is arguably guiltier than his brother because he has a clearer sense of right and wrong.
I was never quite clear how the brothers came to be so educated. Charlie comments on "the fortuitous energy" of California, to which Eli adds, "It was the thought that something as scenic as running water might offer you not only aesthetic solace but also golden riches". And this, from an otherwise boorish thug?
After the striking early chapters my interest waned in the second half, I think because the "climax" of the meeting with Warm proved a damp squib. I found some of the final scenes in California too implausible, and Warm's life history unengaging. I wondered at the end if the author had been uncertain how to finish the tale.
Overall, I understand why this book has been so successful, and it has more than a touch of the Coen brothers' work. It is not a "stunning" novel, say in the Cormac McCarthy league, but probably was never intended be so.