Saturday, January 26, 2013


The best books have a way of getting into our bloodstream, sometimes even creating conflicting responses, just as this book did for critic Mari-Beth Slade in Critics at Large.

Ferocious and Precocious: Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers

Since I’ve begun writing for Critics at Large it’s become apparent that negative reviews garner a lot more attention than positive ones. Since I love attention, I had my mind made up to dislike this novel. I thought it was a sure thing. Superficially, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (Ecco, 2011) is a violent, empty western, dominated by male characters and curtly short chapters. But ultimately, it’s an insightful novel filled with the themes that drive each one of us – family, money, sex and the pursuit of happiness. There are some parts where I cackled garishly; others where I clutched the book to my chest with an understanding sigh.

Having a brother myself, one of the things I most understood was the tacit communication between the Sisters brothers. Throughout the narrative, Eli and Charlie simply have to look at each other to have a conversation. For professional hit men who often find themselves in complicated situations, this is a real asset. Because they are family, the relationship between Eli and Charlie is complex and deWitt does a superb job of depicting this relationship. Particularly in the opening chapters, the characterization of the Sisters brothers is magnificent. We’re naturally drawn to Eli, who narrates the story and attempts to villainize Charlie. However, since deWitt paints Charlie as so full of the logic that Eli seems to lack, it’s impossible to wholeheartedly accept Eli’s portrayal of Charlie as bad guy. Within a few short pages, the reader is shown insights into both Eli’s and Charlie’s individual personalities as well as the way they interact. Eli himself says it best early on as he ponders “the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of a bloodline can be.”

It’s not until the novel is almost over does Eli realize “it doesn’t matter what we do. Money comes and goes.” Between the opening chapter and the final scene, Eli and Charlie Sisters devote a lot of attention to money: talking about it, spending it, robbing people for it, finding it, hiding it, losing it. Their quest for riches also becomes a quest for debauchery and drunkenness (Charlie) and love and self-affirmation (Eli). They meet an interesting cast of characters along the way, but my one major complaint about the book is the lack of believable female characters. Yes, I realize it’s a Western set 150 years ago, but surely there were frontier women who weren’t greasy-haired servants, tawdrily made-up prostitutes or bedridden mothers. Yet, from reading this novel, you’d assume there were not.

Author Patrick deWitt
Eli, though, does meet one particular woman with whom he thinks he’s found true love. He must leave her to continue his journey to assassinate Herman Kermit Warm, but he vows to lose weight (many characters comment on his sizable paunch) before he sees her again. This is one manifestation of Eli’s tendency towards self-improvement – although the concept doesn’t manifest itself much, he often thinks and talks about it. In fact, the theme of personal evolution runs throughout the book. It’s a universal truth that most people want to improve their lives in some way. Patrick deWitt cleverly brings the modern maxim ‘you can never be too rich or too thin’ to life in this historical novel. In setting The Sisters Brothers during the California Gold rush, deWitt subtly makes the point that our world has not changed so much in over 150 years.

Originally told and vividly executed, the novel’s thematic persuasions are clear and character development is strong. But the structure of The Sisters Brothers befuddles me, which is not to say I’m dissatisfied, just mystified. There are two things in particular that I still cannot figure out, even after rereading the pertinent passages several times:

Why are there two 'Intermissions'? 
At about the midway point, and again towards the end, deWitt provides readers a diversion from the main action to learn about Eli’s (imagined?) encounter with a young girl. There’s a Freud-like dream reference, a three-legged dog, attempted murder by poison, an ominous grey-black cloud and an allusion to Eli as a “protected man”. With all these elements, the intermissions must mean something. I have no idea what.

What is the significance of the weeping man? 
At the onset of Eli and Charlie’s journey, the brothers meet a stranger on the road, crying and alone, who they dub “the weeping man”. They invite the fellow to eat lunch with them, he begrudgingly does and they set off on separate ways. The Sisters brothers come across many strange characters in their journey and if it weren’t for the fact that this weeping man appears briefly, randomly and without explanation, at key points throughout the novel, I would think nothing of it. But as it is, the weeping man must mean something. I have no idea what.

Evidently, there are things about this book that keep me up at night. It’s a gritty read, raw without making immediate sense. And like any truly great novel, this book reflects life. 

- originally published on February 24, 2012 in Critics at Large.

– Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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