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sisters - dewittThe Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt
House of Anansi, 2011
Paperback, 330

The Sisters Brothers is the story of two hired guns during the California gold rush (sometime between 1848 and 1855) making their way from Oregon City to San Francisco pursuing their next hit.

Over the course of their travel south, the younger Sisters brother, Eli, begins to feel conflicted about his career choice, which was never so much a choice as it was the only life he has known. Charlie is the more brutal, more coldblooded, more dispassionate killer who has just been made “lead man” by the Commodore, the brothers’ boss. Eli seems to develop a kind of Robin Hood fixation, in which he earns money by killing or robbing but always seems to give away the bulk of it, if not all, to someone who seems needier than he. It is this compassion which seems to save him from terrible things, despite the witch’s curse placed on the brothers early on in the novel.

The first half took on the feeling of a video game to me, in which the brothers complete numerous mini-quests working towards the main goal. I felt a sort of detachment from the characters and their situations in the beginning, but warmed up to them as we travelled together and as I got to know them. The interactions between the brothers are what first drew me into the novel. Though sometimes it seemed their speaking was just a way of narrating past events, such as Charlie’s inorganic description of their father’s death, the overall bantering is fast paced and witty with a tinge of dark humour throughout. A favourite is when Charlie comments about an adversary’s lack of perspective:

‘He describes his inaction and cowardice as laziness,’ Charlie said.
‘And with five men dead,’ I said, ‘he describes our overtaking his riches as easy.’
‘He has a describing problem.’

There were some moments when I wondered if what I was reading was cliched as I felt, or if it was a well-loved particular of the Western genre. These moments became fewer and fewer as the surroundings established themselves, and from the time the Sisters reached the San Franscisco I couldn’t put the book down.

The cover is also one of the most striking I’ve seen. Designed by Dan Stiles, the red, black, and bone layers show the silhouette of the brothers, the moon, and a skull all mixed up together as an optical illusion.

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