“The Sisters Brothers”September 17, 2011 at 12:28 am | Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | 5 Comments
At last, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt – the title on the Booker short list that I personally anticipated the most. Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy that I loved this book as much as I thought it would?
This book is being billed as a ‘cowboy noir’ – whatever that means – but I would call it simply a picaresque novel set in 1851. There aren’t any cowboys in it and I would also argue strenuously that it doesn’t qualify as noir, either. Something about The Sisters Brothers makes us want to invent a new genre for it, that’s all.
I’m a nitpicker, a nitpicker with a bachelor’s in history, so I want to give this book the usual treatment to show that I don’t play favorites. Many of the period details are more appropriate for a book set in the 1880s, a generation later. The toothbrush – not mass produced in the US until 1887 and no American patent until 1857; not in general use in the form we would recognize until 1937. I haven’t tracked down mint-flavored toothpaste, but I’m willing to bet it’s post-Victorian and I’m thinking WWI-era or later. The cigarette – available in France in 1830 but not in the English-speaking world until 1853; commercial cigarettes in the US, 1865. The other object to excite my interest was the single appearance of an indoor water closet. 1851 significantly preceded the Wild West milieu we know from film.
Speaking of film, the one I would compare this book to the most closely is O Brother, Where Art Thou? It also reminded me a bit of Cold Mountain and Henderson the Rain King, although if you’re familiar with either you’re probably wondering why.
I’m waffling about discussing the book itself, because I doubt anything I could say would do it justice. The graphic nature of the violent scenes somehow transcends the level of crime and adds a spiritual dimension, helping us to identify with Eli Sisters and to see him, ultimately, as sympathetic. The bizarre incidents make an odd sort of sense and cohere in a way that justifies their presence as more than random. Every incidental person has a message of import. Unless we possess a weak stomach, we simply can’t stop turning the page.
I’m ranking this book with the books I’ve loved the most.