I feel the need to start this review by apologizing to my partner in (blog) crime, Susan. Because I know she loathed this book, and as you soon will see, my opinion differs. But such is the world of books – and I believe that every good review is a reflection of the reviewer as well as the book. There is no universal truth here – the 1 star review is as true as the 5 star review. The viewpoints are just vastly different.
I wanted to tell you what this book is exactly, but I sense this is where everything starts to go haywire (already). I mean, it’s clearly a western. But you can sense by the title it’s not taking itself too seriously: While it makes kind of sense that these are brothers with the family name Sisters, the title itself is a contraption at first glance. As I’m sure it’s meant to be.
And if it’s a western, it’s not a classical American Western at that. It’s clearly more a Spaghetti Western. That is to say, it’s more dirty, nitty and gritty. The heroes are anti heroes (if heroes at all), and concepts like good and bad went out the window before you turned the first page. There’s a lot more grey here. Which is true to it’s spaghetti heritage.
Allow me to elaborate: American directors used this genre to glorify a part of american history, to even mystify it. Heroes like John Wayne were always the good guy, and they were riding into the sunset in their clean and starched shirts. Sergio Leone and his counterparts set out to demystify that genre. Their anti heroes are wearing dirty, often torn shirts, and they’re more likely to catch a bullet than to ride into the sunset. There’s a scene in this novel that plays with this fact, when the brothers are getting new outfits because their old ones are really worn down.
By the way, the gentlemen in the clip above started out doing serious westerns, but due to their rather comedy infused German synchronisation, those movies turned into slightly comedic adoptions, and later on they decided to add that comedic touch into their movies right from the start. I mention this because the Sisters brothers are starting out as a rather violent western (and violence stays with us throughout the whole story), but there are some scenes of comedic relief built in.
Our narrator is Eli Sister, who’s a tad more gentle in nature than his brother Charlie. And he adds a psychological touch as well, because he’s full of self doubt and reflects heavily on his life choices. (And tries to make amends from time to time.) But he’s also a man of action, so he does what needs to be done. Like wolverine says: They’re the best at what they do, but what they do isn’t very nice.
Despite what you might think, there isn’t all that much violence happening, not at first, and when it does, it often happens as a kind of side show. And while western movies usually take place in a town, this tale starts as a kind of road trip, with Eli narrating and wondering his way through Oregon and California.
In fact, there is so many dialogue and characters that the heritage to the spaghetti western genre is blurred. Modern day western that are referencing this genre have been done by, for example, the Coen brothers (True Grit – if you’ve never seen it, you should do so). But this kind of style is actually more reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, whose movies tend to have long periods of nothing much happening followed by outbursts of violence (the most extreme example for this being »Once upon a time in Hollywood«). So I’m thinking more about Tarantino here. (There’s a 2018 movie made after this book. I haven’t seen it, but since it wasn’t done by Tarantino nor the Coen brothers, I might pass. The only french director I seem to like is Luc Besson.)
So, in the end – a lot more dialogue and philosophy than your run off the mill western, also less violence. And a lot of that violence was not over the top. There are some parts that seemed unnecessary to me – like the two intermissions. And I know that Susan objected heavily to the violence against animals, although I see something that was common in these days. In fact, Eli treated his horse better than most man would have, and that includes the surgery. I see why Susan didn’t like it, and I think it was not necessary in terms of the narrative. But I could also see the inherent logic that led to this, due to prior events.
I enjoyed my time riding along with the Sisters brothers, though I’m sure it’s not for everyone. If you like Tarantino or enjoyed True Grit, this is your kind of story then.
I have to dim the rating a little bit, because I felt there were parts in the story that did nothing for the story itself, just filling pages.
2 replies on “The Sisters brothers, by Patrick DeWitt”
When I was in high school, this book was part of one of our summer reading lists. I want to say it was grade 10 or grade 11 English, so I would have been 15 or 16? I did pick it as one of my summer reads, but I don’t remember too much about it.
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That book was published ten years ago (2011), so that may fit your time frame if you were in school back then. Funny enough that means this book is the same age as my youngest. 😁