With a cover that will grab you from the shelf sooner than you grab it, The Sisters Brothers promises a light entertaining read and a new take on the Western. With a Booker Prize shortlisting it promises even more, but does it deliver?
Two brothers – Eli and Charlie Sisters – leave Oregon on horseback, heading for gold-rush-era California on a mission. The Sisters brothers, hired guns who work for a man known only as the Commodore, are charged to find Hermann Kermit Warm and kill him, but not before extracting certain information from him.
While Charlie loves the life of a contract killer in the West – a life of brandy, whores and easy money for a man as good a shot as he is – Eli is losing his taste for it. Eli increasingly feels he would like nothing more than a simple life, maybe running a store with a good woman by his side. He feels pretty sure that this job will be his last. But an easy life is hard to find out West, a good woman even harder and his loyalty towards his brother is being tested.
Meanwhile their journey west is far from straightforward. The brothers endure more than one misadventure and are delayed by more than one hangover. But on reaching their destination, the discovery of what the Commodore wants from Warm turns everything on its head and even Charlie starts questioning his loyalty to the Commodore.
While a light, easy and enjoyable read, the tone of The Sisters Brothers is somewhat elegiac, particularly as it is the more troubled Eli who is narrating. The structure is episodic with each stop on their trip bringing eccentric characters, new dangers and experiences which will leave their mark and come to bear later in the tale. This framed structure in story-telling is what I like best in the Western, the space travel sci-fi or the Greek hero island-hopping across the archipelago. But that was not best utilised here. The short chapters give a sense of momentum that hides the slowness and fragmented, stop-start nature of the story.
But, this is not your clichéd Western with predictable black-and-white characters whose motivations are simple. It is more contemporary in the sense that the characters and their desires are more complex and changeable. The style and tone should draw readers who may not otherwise dip their nose into a Western novel.
That being said, while I did enjoy The Sisters Brothers and it was interesting and at times even a little innovative, I can’t say that it I loved it. Having now read it twice, I don’t think I will return to it again. I don’t find myself convinced that it is literature either. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011 (and won other prizes besides), but I don’t think it is a potential classic of our time to be revisited in future (unless it gets made into a hit film). It’s too light, there is very little in terms of description to give you a real sense of the location, period, the depths of the souls of the characters and their longing. It lacks tension. I did not get the impression that this was a work of brilliance.
The ‘innovation’ can also be deceptive. The novel is interrupted with intermissions and recurring characters appear whose purpose is unclear. In interviews, author Patrick deWitt admitted that these aspects of the novel have no purpose or intention behind them. Likewise he is reluctant to imply that the novel has any message or moral behind it. The only intention is to tell a story, its only purpose to entertain.
There is one other thing, I’m a little hesitant to mention it lest it be made a big deal of, but the novel does contain a small element of magical reality. Now, I don’t have a problem with magical reality in principle and have happily enjoyed novels containing it in the past. But in this novel that one small element of it irked me a bit on the first reading. On the second reading, knowing it was there, I looked past it. I’m hesitant to mention it since I know many people have strong feelings, mostly negative, of magical reality and I don’t think you should necessarily pass on this novel because of it. ‘Magical Reality’ may even be too strong a term for it as the form it takes is not incredibly supernatural nor does it have significant bearing on the overall plot. That’s why it bothers me, since it is not an essential plot device, it has no symbolic purpose, I can’t help but wonder if it could have been dealt with differently and avoided the magical element of it.
Will a film of The Sisters Brothers be produced?
It certainly feels as if the novel was almost written with a future film version in mind. But just what sort of film will it be in a post-Django world? The story could easily be twisted and turned into very different films. It could be a gritty, taunt Western focusing less on action and more on character, period and the intrigue of the quest. The quirky nature of the encounters the brothers have on their quest would create an immediate comparison to Django Unchained. We could get Bruckheimer on it, turn it into an action spectacular that impresses none of the fans of the book and will be forgotten by viewers within weeks of seeing it. It equally could be made into some sort of slapstick.
I would prefer the former and am immediately put to mind of what the Coen Brothers achieved with True Grit. They would arrest control of the tone and knew when to insert comedic elements. But of course, after the success of True Grit they would not quickly return to something similar. The film rights have been purchased by John C Reilly’s production company and he has eyes on playing Eli himself. He does look the part, and can do the sensitive and comic side of Eli, but can he bring the brooding, lamenting Eli? Who to play the older, leaner, meaner brother Charlie? A young Gene Hackman would be perfect. He could play the drinking, womanising, unrepentant killer and, in terms of looks, be a believable older brother to John C Reilly. Liam Neeson may also be a bit too old. Perhaps Russell Crowe?
Turning the novel into a film would have more issues than getting the balance between tone, action and comedy correct, however. I particularly predict more action will be inserted and the ending will be rewritten in a film version.
While it may not make an enduring classic, The Sisters Brothers offers light entertainment and a more contemporary take on the Western and despite the acclaim should be enjoyed for what it is. Plus it has a very cool cover.