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The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt: a clever title and a clever cover. I’m not quite sure how clever – rather than simply entertaining – the book itself is and after our annual husbands-invited Christmas book club evening I feel none the wiser.

Truth be told, I started off at a disadvantage. Everyone else present had heard of the book which had apparently been talked of exclusively in the literary press throughout 2011, and was short-kisted for the Man Booker prize! Where was I when all this was going on?

Last Saturday night over a quite delicious meal and a taxi ordered for the six Parwich folk so no worries about sticking to soda water we discovered that everybody had enjoyed it, which is quite a triumph when twelve people of assorted reading tastes get together to discuss a book. We have had some disasters in the past, which actually makes for far livelier – if uncomfortable – discussions than when we are all basically in agreement as we were on Saturday.

The Sisters Brothers is essentially a cowboy story: Charlie and Eli Sisters are paid assassins and the fear of the west, at the time of the California Gold Rush in the 1850s. Charlie, the elder, is a damaged soul who shows no reluctance to kill to order, even for the flimsiest of reasons. Eli, the younger, is a much gentler and more likeable soul who begins to question what they are doing and harbours dreams of setting up a clothes store! However, he worships his older brother and continues to follow in his shadow until eventually Charlie rather significantly loses his right hand – his shooting hand – after they try to search for gold using a patent but lethal ‘mixture’ which highlights the gold but corrodes animal or human flesh at the same time.

The story unfolds as a series of adventures, told in little bite-sized chunks (ideal for reading late at night when the concentration is going). Gradually the roles of the two brothers are reversed as Eli, the gentle, self-analytical one who is frightened of spiders (and witches) and worries about his horse grows up, becoming more self-confident and the binge drinking and shallow cruelty of Charlie – and the loss of his right hand – takes him down to second place. So, not your usual cowboy story by any means and in fact it slowly emerges as more an anti-cowboy, anti-hero story about failed dreams, the relationship of two brothers and the destructive power of greed.

So, an intriguing, most unusual and thoroughly readable tongue-in-cheek cowboy story, described very aptly by one reviewer as ‘a quirky and stylish revisionist western’ – ‘so good, so funny and so sad’.

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