A Fist Full of Nothing? – ‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick deWitt

It can be hard reading (and then reviewing) a highly acclaimed book, particularly if you find your own opinion of it contrary to everybody else’s. I had wanted to read ‘The Sisters Brothers’ since before it was longlisted for the Booker prize; its subsequent acclaim had me anticipating something special. Whilst in no way a bad book, I found ‘TSB’ to be a pedestrian tale. A tale well told, but one that failed to deliver on its promise.

The novel is narrated by Eli Sisters, one half of the notorious Sisters Brothers, murderous enforcers for an unseen crime baron called ‘The Commodore’. Eli and Charlie are travelling to California, to track down Herman Warm. Warm has irritated their employer, and Eli and Charlie have been dispatched to ensure he doesn’t do it again.

The period and setting are well constructed. deWitt conveys the openness of the wild west well, but what really stands out is the sense of lawlessness. Unlike most depictions of the Gold Rush era deWitt’s contains no glamour; it is survival of the fittest. The strongest takes what it wants from the weak, and the weak die. The motto of almost everybody in the book is ‘Get rich or die tryin’.

The novel’s characters, particularly Eli, are well drawn. Charlie is a ruthless killer, Eli is on the surface a brute; violent and quick to anger, but he has another side. Eli is a dangerous man, but he is also a thinker, and he does not like what he has become. The novel explores his inner turmoil as he tries to transcend his circumstances and lead a better life. Although the style, settings and characters are entirely different, I found ‘TSB’ curiously reminiscent of ‘Great Expectations’.

The story essentially follows Eli’s pitiful attempts to change. Gauche and naive, each of his attempts to appear ‘normal’ end in acutely embarrassing failure. Whilst this was interesting to begin with, over the course of the novel it failed to sustain my attention. The idea that bad men are capable of good is hardly a new one, and Eli’s tribulations don’t really add much to the discussion.

The novel is a series of set pieces; situations in which Eli can fail in his attempts to straighten out. By the end to the novel it feels all too artificial. And that for me is the big problem – despite a well-drawn setting, the story never feels real. Everything, including the title,all feels contrived. They’re brothers, but they’re also sisters – girls, who are cowboys – clever heh? For some reason the more I read, the more the book’s title annoyed me.  I can envisage a parody of this novel, with two taproom tarts called the Brothers sisters.   That wouldn’t be funny either.

The novel has a moving and fitting epilogue, about which I won’t say any more, lest I spoil it, but overall, I found the book’s culmination absurd. Characters behave against type, and so I stopped caring what happened to them. Many, many other people have really enjoyed this book, but I am unable understand why. For me this was a novel filled with potential that was never realised; I’d hoped for gold but came away empty handed.

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