The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt

Originally posted March, 2012:

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Fraternal Fighters

This is a wonderfully comic and enriching story about the brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters, killers on a job-related quest. Their lives and sustained survival are underscored by menace and mendacity, but the telling of the siblings’ mean and murderous journey is delivered with an opposing calm and honesty by Eli – and the simple but wholly absorbing narrative and dialogue of writer Patrick deWitt.

Their story encompasses brotherly love and hate, greed, frontier existentialism, drinking, weight worries, teeth hygiene [every dentist should have these extracts printed in pamphlets replacing irrelevant surgery magazines], killing with aplomb, the work ethic, commitment, altruism, and, of course, the journey through which this and so much more is variously embraced and rejected.

Care and concern for horses has a place in this tale too. Eli’s horse Tub features strongly throughout and is both absurdly and metaphorically central to the themes of friendship, reliance and pragmatism.

Eli is the younger brother, and though less coldly clinical in killing than Charlie, his temper makes him no less effective – however, fraternal love will always make them a deadly duo because there is such an instinctive bond when it comes to either hunting out their prey or dealing immediately with unforeseen interference in this. But it is Eli who ruminates on the killings afterwards and yearns for a different life.

Both serve the Commodore, their mysterious but powerful employer, and his retributive, murderous instructions are theirs to carry out without question and however far it takes them – in this story across gold-rush California in search of Herman Kermit Warm who has offended their brutal boss. At first we don’t know what this offence was, and it isn’t meant to matter to the brothers whose fame is based on their relentless expertise in fulfilling such duties. But we do find out and this is where the story begins its shifts and presents uncertainty into the Brothers Sisters’ world – well, at least initially into Eli’s thinking.

There is a redemptive ending yet at a considerable cost, but I won’t spoil the story by saying anything further on this. Needless to say, the reading journey following theirs is a delightful and rewarding experience. Thanks to J for recommending this book to me, and to the sun for coming out so I could read and finish so quickly.

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