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Thursday, December 8, 2011

What I'm Reading: The Sisters Brothers

In October I read the Booker Prize Finalist, The Sisters Brothers by Canadian author, Patrick deWitt.

Here is how I have been describing it: It is a cross between the Cohen Brothers movies O Brother, Where Art Thou and  No Country for Old Men. That's exactly what it is.  If this sounds intriguing to you, stop reading the review and go read this great book.  On the other hand if you are not a fan of the Cohen Brothers' sense of humor, this is not the book for you.

Also, this novel has a great cover that portrays the appeal very well. It is ominous, but humorous, deadly, but playful.

Our narrator is Eli Sisters.  He is a contract killer in the Gold Rush era Pacific Northwest, along with his brother, Charlie.  Get it. They are brothers with the last name Sisters (the Sisters Brothers).
The brothers work for a rich man named the Commodore, who remains unseen until the closing pages of the novel, but directs their movements. Charlie is the "brains" of the operation (quotes intentional) and Eli the heart.  The entire novel is about their journey to find the man they are supposed to kill.  It is about who they meet and how they act along the way.

Once the find their man, the story loses much of its steam, very similarly to O Brother, Where Art Thou.  If you read for a plot with a clear end in sight, this may not be the book for you.

Throughout the course of the story, Eli is contemplating "getting out of the game."  He is a killer, but one with a heart.  He is trying to convince his brother that it is time for them to live a legitimate life. But is that even possible when just the mention of your name makes people tremble?  Once you are a killer, do you always remain one?  I am not sure if the book answers these question, but the end does see the brothers achieving a twisted kind of redemption.  And, the novel will leaving you thinking about these questions long after you return the book.

This is a dark and quirky book.  What happens on their journey to fulfill their commitment to the Commodore is more important than the job they were hired to do.  It is the journey and the eccentric characters, towns, and situations the Sisters Brothers encounter along the way that is the reason why you would read this book.

Readers also need to be willing to identify with a killer, a nice killer, but still a killer, and follow him along for the ride.  It might sound weird to say, but Eli is charming.  I wanted to follow him and his twisted logic anywhere he was going to take me.  In fact, I was sad to see the book come to and end because it meant I had to say goodbye to Eli.

The Sisters Brothers has a great Western setting and feel.  But it is not in the style of a traditional western because of the sympathetic murdering heroes.  I loved the descriptions of the landscape, the horses, the grizzled men panning for gold.  There are entire chunks of the novel during which Eli contemplates his conflicted relationship with his horse.

This novel is also extremely fast paced, especially considering it is literary fiction.  The chapter are short and most end with cliff hangers.  While it cannot be described as "non-stop" action, the flow of the story is constantly leading you up to the next action sequence.

Overall, this is an original, character-centered, dark and quirky read.  I personally adored it.

Three Words That Describe This Book: quirky, character driven, strong sense of place
Readalikes: As I mentioned above, if you like the Cohen Brothers sense of humor, you will love The Sisters Brothers.

For another historical novel in which the journey is more important that the finish line, try Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

For another charming killer who talks directly to you, the reader, try any of Jeff Lindsay's Dexter books.  In the case of Dexter, however, you have a modern setting.

Elmore Leonard is also a good readalike author option here.  Leonard has some western settings, but even in his modern, urban set crime novels, he always has sleazy but lovable characters, a wry sense of humor, and quirky people and situations.

In terms of novels with a Western setting, but a more twisted (ie, not traditional Western) point of view I would also suggest True Grit by Charles Portis and Larry McMurtry's Berrybender Novels.

Look for more reviews in the coming days as I try to clear out the backlog and get ready for my personal "best" list for 2011.

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