96 of 113 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2011
I wanted to love this book. It jumped off of my pile of shortlisted Booker Prize nominees and demanded to be read first. Everything about it shouted "Yes, it's literature, but IT's FUN." The premise is that of a classic picaresque novel -- Charlie and Eli Sisters, two professional assassins in 1850 are sent by their employer to hunt down and kill Herman Kermit Warm who may, or may not, have stolen something. In the course of their journey from Oregon to California, at the height of the gold rush, they meet a panoply of misfits and losers who provide a steady stream of often humorous incidents that help to explicate the brother's relationship. Add to this set-up, a narrative voice, provided by Eli, the younger of the two gunslinging brothers, Eli, that has a deadpan simplicity that is oddly appealing. And, it is worth noting, it has the best cover I've seen in a long time.
With so much going for it, why doesn't Patrick deWitt's novel deliver? Ultimately it is a failure to integrate the disparate events into a cohesive plot or arc for character development. Things happen and some of them are funny, but they don't lay the groundwork for growth in Eli's character that the form demands. It doesn't help that once the brothers find their target that the plot twist that leads to the climax of the book is singularly flat and generates no tension. It also didn't help that there are historical incongruities (particularly around the state of dentistry) that are jarring and out-of-place. Even in a story that in no way purports to be realist, realistic details would help to sustain the truth that can be found in absurdity. deWitt is a talented writer, and while I don't think he shouldn't win the Booker for this outing, I do look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2012
I should love this book. If you described its characters and plot to me I would love it. If you read me passages from its fantastic prose I would love them. If you described the themes and tone and pace I would love all of them. But for some reason, when I actually read it, nothing quite jelled. There isn't enough humor for it to be funny. There isn't enough action for it to be exciting. There isn't enough meditation on the human experience for it to be enlightening. There isn't enough narrative for it to be entertaining. It could probably have been cut in half by a more discerning editor and made for a great novella or even short story. That isn't to say it is bad, because it is not. The antiquated voice that DeWitt strikes is brilliant and spot on. The characters (at least the two leads) are well rounded and interesting. The settings are intriguing and the subject matter feels fresh despite a recent spat of neo-western literature and film. It's a nice read if you don't have anything to do on a rainy weekend. But this is not the next Cormac McCarthy.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2013
"The Sisters Brothers" was released to great reviews. On the back of such recommendations, I bought the book some time ago. It has taken me a while to get into this unusual account of criminal life occasioned by the opportunities for illicit wealth creation during the California gold rush. Patrick de Witt is a good story teller and his plot and character development unfold very cleverly. The more I got to know the hired guns Charlie and Eli Sister, the less I liked them and this feeling of discomfort grew throughout the book as their schemes for self advancement got more violent and more gruesome. There is no one to like in this book filled with a bizarre cast of characters that would keep a whole conference hall of psychiatrists busy for weeks. However, justice of sorts is delivered in the end and de Witt's literary talents are sufficient to keep even the more sensitive of his readers along until the end of this wild ride.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2012
The reviews on the covers include words and phrases such as "weirdly funny", "darkly funny", "gallows humor" and at least two reviewers called it "hilarious." I was looking for something funny and I have always like western themes so I got this book. It has nice pacing, an ear for the way people actually spoke in the 1800's, two very odd characters with a lot of emotional baggage who persevere to "get the job done" and in some ways redeem themselves by the end, and an interesting story line to carry through to the end. It also has a lot of violence that doesn't speak well for those involved as human beings but given the hard living that went on in California in the 1850s, it really is not all that surprising. I found however no funny parts, weird, dark or gallows and if there was any hilarity in it, well, I just didn't find it.
I did enjoy the book and was carried along by the narrating character, Eli Sisters, the younger and more thoughtful of the two brothers, and his takes on situations. Quirky is a good word for the characters, and poignant is good for how one might feel at the end. The book has sufficient plot twists to sustain interest along with a style of dialog that is, in its own way, almost charming at times. But don't expect humor or hilarity.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 19, 2014
The Sisters Brothers is, by virtue of its cobbling together, a somewhat unique entity. While authors like Cormac McCarthy have painted the world of the stereotypical ‘west’ in unapologetically literary strokes, the blending of genres, approaches, and elements in Patrick DeWitts 2nd novel means that whatever The Sisters Brothers establishes for itself in terms of value, it can at least use novelty to stick in the mind of the reader.
Going through the short, snappy chapters, I found little objection to the style of the book in terms of prose (though some came later), with the exception of the vocabulary and delivery in parts. As seems worryingly to be the case with books I read lately, the first chapter rang almost as tho it was the remainder of an early first draft too precious to be touched. At the opening, the ostensibly simple-minded Eli Sisters tells us that he and his brother “did not believe in naming horses” (5), a subject worth addressing since their previous horses were “immolated”. Right out the gate, the lack of contractions and ten-dollar-word drops don’t fit in with the atmosphere of a Western the reader might expect to find—so, the question becomes, is DeWitt doing this intentionally?
As the book continues, I would argue not, and it’s for that reason that the opening passage sticks out like a sore thumb. The book’s use/disuse of contractions seems wildly inconsistent, and while Eli is eventually shown to at least be somewhat more careful and considerate than the average gunslinger in the frontier days, there’s no explanation for his random bouts of lucidly elevated vocabulary. We’re also perhaps meant to be show, by virtue of his continual first person introspection, that he’s a more sensitive, insightful soul than his brother—but, on the outside, in interactions, he’s typically given shrift as the ‘slow’ one of his fraternal pair.
While inconsistency of a character could be argued as a fleshing out of the complexity of human nature, the jumps and contrast seemed too wide for me to buy the jumbled personality and portrayal as intentional—not that I didn’t enjoy Eli as a character. He makes a mostly outstanding narrator, giving us the focal points in a stripped but meditative fashion, and closing almost every chapter with a too-insightful-to-be-real epigrammatic thought, which nevertheless left me with a thoughtful smile on my face more than not. Lines like “We can all of us be hurt, and no one is exclusively safe from worry and sadness” (50), “I saw my bulky person in the windows of the passing storefronts and wondered, When will that man there find himself to be loved?” (56), “It is true, I thought. I am living a life” (62), and “I stood a long while… studying my profile, the line I cut in this world of men and ladies” (66) have a poetic ringing to them, and DeWitt employs it to good effect, capping each series of events off with enough insight to pull the reader forward.
Overall, from the perspective of Eli, the book appears to communicate two central themes: one, that life is a series of short, tangentially related happenstance and respective miseries, and two, that the agency of a man is either concrete or ethereal, dependent on perspective. DeWitt grapples with the ideas of chance and fate as principle forces in the book (including a mystifying encounter with a mysterious witch, an event that felt entirely out of place in the book’s primarily realistic setting—the ‘intermission’ sections told in dream-like cloudy revelations felt jarring for similar reasons), but he seems himself uncertain (and Eli as a result) to what extent they exist as real, tangible forces. In the end, it seems as though the narrative is perhaps meant to merely provoke the dissection of these concepts, with the reader coming to their own terms with them at the end of the book.
With the thematics of the narrative aside, however, there are some purely technical and story-related dings in the book’s polished mirror of self-reflection. These primarily present themselves as inconsistencies. At one point, and only one point, DeWitt has Eli address the reader (or the text) directly, as though it’s a story he’s telling—but this viewpoint is never touched on again, nor does it have any substantiation given the story’s delivery elsewhere. On page 185, a letter from a principle character is transcribed ‘verbatim’—but the voice of the character, whom we’re lead to believe is educated, proper, fastidious, and intellectual, is translated in exactly the same voice as Eli, the grim but sympathetic, uneducated gunslinger. Towards the end of the novel’s central conflict, Warm, the character whom the brothers have been chasing the whole book, gives the story of his history in the world, which takes up the better part of twelve pages, with no discernable reason other than to fill space with pointless elucidation delivered so matter-of-factly that it doesn’t even begin to build sympathy for the character in question. And, lastly, as the book comes to a close, the resolution not only feels convoluted, but also dishonest—as though, in service of some inscrutable, sanctimonious moral, DeWitt is tying things up so neatly that they must suffocate—and the reader along with them.
I still found The Sisters Brothers to be an engaging read. The prose, while stilted in some areas, countered any dragging with fast-paced scuffles in some parts and lucid stream-of-consciousness insight in others. Where I found the strings of the narrative arc ultimately unsatisfying, I feel the book’s theme of man’s grapple with agency and against fate to be motivating enough to provoke significant thought, and for that I suppose I can excuse it. Ultimately, The Sisters Brothers is probably worth a read, though I will confess to a mild mystification about its position as a best seller. Perhaps based purely on the novelty of its blended elements and positioning, it hooked onto the intangible X-factor of popular acclaim. It’s certainly not a bad book by any means; just one that leaves me wondering about the way the world determines what sells and what doesn’t. Is it agency, chance, or fate?
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 25, 2012
The brothers are a balance of plausible opposites just like a buddy movie. The tone is dark, like all hip novels these days. Paradise is not hip. The inferno is hip. So we are in the inferno. The dialogue is glib and sparse in order to show the derangement of persons from the moral implications of their actions. These days this is called irony. And it is held if high esteem. The abstention from moral examination is considered very folksy and charming. The setting is the west of cowboys. You can tell because there are horses and guns and prostitutes and so forth. So you know you are in the west. You've been here many times before. Each time has been more or less in the formula. The western formula is somewhat variated here. Again in that charming folksy ironic way that you are just going find outrageously funny. But maybe not. Also Charming and folksy will be the maudlin philosophy of the narrator who, apparently absent from any consideration of his violent actions, is given to fine american-type folksy humor. Mark Twain would love this guy! Or maybe not. And actually, don't buy this book. Buy Mark Twain's Autobiography. Its got more humor in five pages than this whole book. Its far more droll, folksy, american, ironic, charming, and its actually funny, its very hip, its completely subversive and quite a bit of it addresses issues of morality and violence directly. So have some fun with your life.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2012
DeWitt has written a wonderful take on the traditional Western. I am by no means an expert on the genre, but I really enjoyed this book. The book reminded me a little of the comic crime capers of Donald Westlake. The main reason I don't give it more stars is the narration by Eli. He admits that he's never really shared his older brother's appetite for drinking and killing, but he's never known anything else and he is devoted to Charlie. He relates the story with a nearly flat affect, if that's possible to do in writing. In some places this device works wonderfully to lend humor to the tale (as in their introduction to dental hygiene), but much of the time I found myself just wondering when I was going to really get engaged in the story. I was curious about what was going to happen, but I didn't really care what was going to happen. Still, I'm glad I read it and I might recommend it, especially to my brother and others who love Westerns.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
I have really mixed feelings about this book. There is currently a huge amount of buzz about it since it's just been short-listed for the Man Booker prize, but it really didn't speak to me. It's unfortunate, because a childhood of watching John Wayne movies with my great-grandmother has given me a soft spot for westerns.
The strength of the book is in the narrator. Eli Sisters has an unusual voice: somewhat deadpan, with glimpses of eloquence. He's a conflicted character. While his brother Charlie is a killer through and through, Eli has a conscience that rears its ugly head from time to time. He has a soft spot for his injured horse (whose plight made me awfully sad), but can shoot a man without a second thought.
If it wasn't so violent, this book could be considered a comedy of errors. For me, it was less about their journey and more about how they reacted when things went wrong.
I wish I could say I liked the book more. Despite the compelling narrator, I had a hard time liking any of the characters. I could *almost* like Eli, but there was still something missing. Something to make him human. Also, despite having extremely short chapters (2-3 pages in most cases), it was a very slow read. It took me a couple of weeks to get through the book. I just wasn't excited to pick it up at night.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2013
I became interested in reading this novel for somewhat shallow reasons: The fact that it had been nominated for Man Booker Prize, that it had a really great cover and the third reason was because they were going to make a movie adaptation out of it. That McCarthy kept being brought up in relation to this novel also picked my interest, as I very much enjoy his fiction.
In truth, I didn't expect much of the novel. I trusted that it would amount to a pleasing read but that I would ultimately just file it under the "guilty pleasures" cabinet. As it turned out I liked it quite a bit more than I expected I would.
The overall plot concerns The Sister's Brothers being contracted to hunt and kill a prospector who is said to have stolen from the Commodore, a ruthless and powerful man. Throughout their journeys they stumble into a cast of odd characters, dangerous and life-threatening situations, turns of luck and funny happenstances.
The main character and narrator is Eli Sisters, a very likeable and compelling character despite his appalling profession. What make him so likeable are his inner dilemmas, considerable ingenuity and funny remarks and observations. The fact that the novel is written in it's entirety from Eli's perspective makes the Sister's somewhat odd and amoral travels more relational and compelling, specially considering that Eli is at a turning point in his life at which he is tired of the moral and physical demands of his profession.
The plot has many twists and turns but its progression is always very aptly and compellingly handled due to DeWitt's storytelling capabilities which are considerable. The novel doesn't not at any point feel rushed and, despite a number of funny occurrences and pitch-black dry humour, there is a sense of impending doom pervading all of the narrative, a doom that we feel will befall upon not only the main characters but all of the western plains.
However the novel does have its shortcomings, beginning with the prose. It does forward the plot very efficiently, but it is also very serviceable. And by that I mean that it tells its tale well enough, without any particular flair or panache, almost like a movie's screenplay. I suppose that for many that will be seen as a definite advantage, but for me a book is only great if it merits a second read in a brief period of time. And for a book to able to merit a second read in a brief time its prose cannot be merely serviceable. I will certainly read it again eventually, but not anytime soon.
So overall I think a good way of describing the book would be something like McCarthy-light as some of his hallmarks are present (the apocalyptic and desolate feel of the plains; the violence, hardship and cost of living in the wild west), but the humour and likeability of the characters lifts much of the weight and despair that living in such universe may convey to the reader.
Many have referenced that this would make perfect material for a Coen Brothers film and I completely concur with that notion. In fact, as I read it I kept picturing some of the character's with a physical likeness to Coen's regulars (except for Eli Sisters, I pictured him as John C. Reilly -no doubt due to both the fact that he is mentioned in the book's acknowledgements as well as that he has bough the movie rights).
All in all, I would afford it with a very solid 7 out of 10. If I could give it half stars I would afford it with three and an half stars. Since Amazon does not allow for any of these, I can't really afford it with more than three very solid stars.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2013
I'll be the first to admit that I enjoyed the story. I thought that the plot was very interesting, and the entire time, I felt like I was watching an old Western film. However, like a Western movie usually isn't the best quality of movie, I felt that this book wasn't the best quality.
I don't want to spoil any details, so I'll just talk about writing style and character development. I was quite astounded that the book was doing fairly well in sales, because the writing was hard to be drawn into. It read like a dull nonfiction book, with the exception that the material being discussed was intriguing. The whole time, I remained annoyed at the dry and boring style that the author used. Instead of viewing the book as if I'm right there experiencing it with the characters, I felt like I was just looking in through a glass window from the outside.
Secondly, the characters just did not develop as much as I would've liked. Again, I think this is mostly because of the writing style, but the characters were as flat as a cardboard to me. When things would happen to any of the characters, I would acknowledge and recognize it, but I wouldn't feel it. To me, it's extremely important to feel what the characters feel, but that was mostly lacking.
Overall, it wasn't a bad read. I might even be something that I would suggest and read again. But it will never be a favorite or memorable read.