Saturday 10 March 2012

REVIEW: The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt (4*)

(Granta Books, 2011)

'You have never thought about quitting?'
'Every man that has ever held a position has thought about quitting.'

Okay, first up let me say that I would never normally have picked this novel up.  Then I saw the folks on the TV Book Club gushing over it, proclaiming that it was perhaps their favourite book from their entire run and that it was a complete surprise - so I picked it up anyway.  And I'm SO glad I did, because they were right - it WAS a complete surprise.  Who would have thought that a western noir about a pair of assassins would have buried its way under my skin so completely?

The book follows the fortunes of the notorious Sisters brothers, Eli and Charlie, as they set out on their latest job - to kill a man called Hermann Kermit Warm, on the orders of their boss, known only as The Commodore.  Set against the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, their mission takes them from Oregon City to San Francisco and beyond, in search of the elusive Warm and his claim.  Along the way they drink, flirt and fight with all kinds of weird and wonderful folks, from prospectors to prostitutes.  It's quite a ride, for the brothers and the reader alike!

The most important thing about the novel, and its main draw, is that it is entirely narrated by Eli Sisters - and what a narrator he is!  I've never come across a cold-blooded killer I could really get behind in a book, but Eli was endearing, even loveable, from start to finish!  His narration is spare, thoughtful, poetic, uncompromising, yet strangely innocent, almost childlike at times, and very amusing.  That was one of the biggest surprises about the book - that it is so funny!  The author has really given us a supremely human story in the most unlikely of settings - underneath the casual brutality this is a book about two brothers making their way in the world together, laughing, teasing, arguing and reconciling as they go.  On this journey Eli is also questioning everything about his life: Will he ever be loved?  What has been he missing while he's been under the Commodore's command?  How is he different from Charlie?  Does he want to be an assassin any more or is there a better future out there for him?  He is no faceless killer, he is a man, with morals and a soft spot for his horse and a deep thread of kindness and generosity.  A intriguing protagonist, indeed.

Aside from his wonderful cast of characters, de Witt also offers us a fascinating insight into life in the American West during the Gold Rush.  It is a brutal and lawless place, and he dunks his readers straight in there headfirst so we can almost taste the dirt, smell the cold metal of the brothers' pistols, hear the raucous laughter coming from the saloons...  It was a time when men let their guns do the talking, gold fever swept across America, and San Francisco regularly burnt to the ground and had to be rebuilt as it struggled to cope with the influx of people hoping to make their fortunes from the nearby rivers.  Through Eli, deWitt shows us 19th century California in all her terrible glory, and it is hard to tear yourself away from the pages once you've immersed yourself.

I'd absolutely recommend this book, to men and women alike.  There were moments that made me laugh, moments that made me well up, moments that made my heart sink and moments that made my eyes go wide... and I loved every last one of them.  Eli might end up being one of my favourite characters of 2012 - he's such an unlikely and unusual hero - and his journey was exciting, compelling and pretty darn unforgettable.  Put aside your feelings about westerns, about violence, about historical fiction, about Man Booker nominees, whatever's stopping you picking this book up, and just read it already!

Notable Quotables:
  • "I sat on the bank and watched him splashing and singing; he had not had anything to drink the night before and there had been no other people around to upset his volatile nature, and I found myself becoming sentimental by this rare show of innocent happiness.  Charlie had often been glad and singing as a younger man, before we took up with the Commodore, when he became guarded and hard, so it was sad in a way to watch him frolic in that shimmering river, with the tall snowy mountains walling us in."
  • "'Each job is different.  Some I have seen as singular escapades.  Others have been like a hell.' I shrugged.  'You put a wage behind something, it gives the act a sort of respectability.  In a way, I suppose it feels significant to have something as large as a man's life entrusted to me.'  'A man's death', she corrected."
  • "'All you will get from me is Death.'  Charlie's words, spoken just as casual as a man describing the weather, brought the hair on my neck up and my hands began to pulse and throb.  He is wonderful in situations like this, clear minded and without a trace of fear.  He had always been this way, and though I had seen it many times, every time I did I felt an admiration for him."
  • "I was thinking that a man like myself, after suffering such a blow as you men have struck on this day, has two distinct paths he might travel in his life.  He might walk out into the world with a wounded heart, intent on sharing his mad hatred with every person he passes; or, he might start out anew with an empty heart, and he should take care to fill it up with only proud things from then on, so as to nourish his desolate mind-set and cultivate something positive anew."

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.