Best of 2012: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick De Witt – Guest Post by Lyndsay Wheble

Lyndsay Wheble is a blogger I’ve been reading for a while, and I’m always impressed by her choices of books to feature on her blog, Tolstoy Is My Cat. She is a dedicated reader and her blog is a joy to read. Here she talks about her pick for 2012, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick De Witt.

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When Lizzi asked me to contribute to her ‘Best of 2012’ list I really had to think about it as I actually tend to shy away from reading books that are too new: I’d rather delve into a backlist or pick up a book that has survived the baptism of time, rather than being seduced by flash-in-the-pan hype or the most impactful marketing budget.

In fact, I have a confession to make: it turns out, upon checking my Goodreads ‘read’ list, that I’ve only read two books published in 2012 and neither was good enough to warrant being on this list, so I’m going to bend the rules slightly and talk about a book published in the second half of 2011 and featured on the 2012 series of the More4 TV Book Club, which is how it came to me. Apologies to all for my shunning of modern fiction; rest assured, I am heartily slapping my own wrist.

2011 paperback cover. Image: Goodreads.com

So, all awkwardness passed, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is my choice for my ‘Best of 2012’; I made an exception to my old-books-first rule for it because of its stunning cover, Granta credentials and the fact that the More4 TV Book Club literally put it into my hands, and I’m so glad I did. This book is a humdinger of a novel that will stand the test of time, there’s not a doubt in my mind.

The premise is at once familiar and deeply unusual. Set in the 1850s Californian Gold Rush, brothers and hitmen-for-hire Eli and Charlie Sisters are contracted by the Commodore, an omnipotent, malevolent figure, to track down notorious prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (what a name!) for reasons initially unknown to them. Along their Don Quixote-esque way to finding this man, they come across a whole host of characters – some sympathetic, some downright bloodthirsty and disgusting, but all horribly memorable – and we learn that Eli, the younger brother and our narrator, is increasingly sickened by his lifestyle and occupation, and yearns for an honest living, a smaller waistline, and a better man’s peace of mind.

The humour of this book is as black as tar, the realism incredibly modern, but the vernacular and historical setting are rendered to perfection. It is also incredibly surreal, with a modern emotional honesty and a pure literary class, which made me feel that if the Coen Brothers were to make a surreal, literary, dark-as-pitch Western, it would be something like this. The language is poetic and visual, the plot is really a vehicle for Eli’s fascinating self-discovery, and DeWitt is not afraid to explore a tangent or to make the absolute most of every single funny, distressing scene.

We dunked the boy in the stream and he awoke with a start. He was happy to see us, amused as he sat up. ‘I have never come to in running water before.’ He clapped the surface with his palm. ‘My God, it’s cold.’

‘What happened to you?’ I asked.

‘At the start of the woods I met a group of trappers on horseback, four of them, said they were looking for a red-coloured bear. When I told them I hadn’t seen the bear they hit me on the head with a club. I dropped to the dirt and they rode off laughing. After I got my bearings I climbed back on old Paul and he led me here, to you all.’

‘He led himself to water, is what he did,’ said Charlie.

‘No,’ said the boy, patting and stroking Lucky Paul’s face. ‘His thoughts were with me, and he did what was needed.’

Charlie said, ‘You sound like my brother and his horse, Tub.’ He turned to me. ‘You and this boy should come together and form a committee or association of some kind.’

‘Which way did these men go?’ I asked the boy.

‘The Protectors of Moronic Beasts,’ said Charlie.(p110)

Patrick de Witt. Image: criticsatlarge.ca

Now, six months after reading it and posting my original review, just to think of this book is to have my mind populated with rotting horses, mysterious, mangled old crones, the wonders of teeth-cleaning, horrors in the river and Californian saloon bars of the highest, most vivid order. I think this was my first ever literary Western, but if they were all like this, I’d read them all.

Bravo Patrick DeWitt, and a whole-hearted recommendation that you give this book a try.

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The Sisters Brothers was published in paperback in October 2011 by Granta Books.

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