The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt was a novel I had been eager to read for quite some time. I felt sure I’d like the tale the book had to tell. Maybe that’s because it has been cited as paying homage to the classic Western and I have already devoured with glee several novels by Cormac McCarthy that do the same, and maybe it was rather superficially something to do with the overly cool and modern cover which announced it was a book to be read. I know you should never judge a book by a cover but as I have already confessed more than once, I still sometimes do.
The Sisters Brothers is unlike any other novel I’ve read. In my opinion it’s a wonderful work of literary brilliance and I think Dewitt has broken into new literary ground previously untouched by any man or woman. But then again I am not a professor of modern English literature, and in fact of no authority at all when it comes to declaring what and who should be deemed brilliant in the literary world, as I was harshly reminded at the book club when some people declared the novel frankly disappointing and not at all what they’d hoped for.
I could spend several paragraphs explaining why I loved our protagonist Eli, our hired killer who is blighted by his own sensitivity and naivety in his career path and just how impressive a feat I felt Dewitt had accomplished by making our killers likeable and also farcical despite their sinister murderous side. I could also write another meaty paragraph about the depth Dewitt injected into this novel by beautifully tracing the transformation in the brothers relationship, an extremely touching portrayal of life as a sibling, one which I could relate to even if my sister and I aren’t serial killers. However, what I really want to write about it a theme which Dewitt has artfully woven throughout the novel, the germination of our modern-day flaws.
Whether deliberate or accidental, in his depiction of America in the 1850’s, Dewitt manages to include most of the major vices, flaws and troubles of modern America. There is the gun violence prominent throughout, there’s Eli’s apparent weight problem, Charlie’s problem with alcohol, there is the overwhelming greed for money that ravages everyone and there is even a section which touches upon the negative impact humans inflict upon the environment.
Although we could read Dewitt’s novel with gratitude and feel thankful that we are no longer living in an era that brutal and primal, I found myself wondering; are we really that different in this modern day and age?
In the US, and recently the UK, gangs carry out unspoken clandestine wars where they will set out to kill a member of a rival gang with guns, and will usually end up wounding or killing the innocent bystanders. In the UK we have a major problem with people being overly fond of their alcohol and getting into states equally as ugly as those that Charlie fell into on several occasions throughout the novel. Obesity is a growing problem throughout the developed world, so whereas Eli’s diet raised a smile on my lips and ironically made him more endearing, however reading about a 63 stone teenage girl having to be lifted by crane from her house and taken to hospital to try and save her life in 2012 is simply sickening. The special potion they poured into the river in search of gold killed the river life. Although we are now aware of the effect pollution has on our environment we are still pouring unimaginable quantities of toxic waste into our seas and rivers every day. The greed which devours the characters of Dewitt’s novel, making them lose all sense of reason in most instances, is still the driving force behind most of the human race.
Is the America that Dewitt depicts in his novel more brutal and savage; or is it simply more honest in its flaws and troubles? We now have laws, support groups, protective services, charities, societies and structure; we effectively have all the means possible to have completely eradicated all of the troubles that plagued humanity in the 1850’s, however in some instances our modern society has only provided the means to hide or embellish the very same downfalls. I don’t want to say that we haven’t tried, but I guess human nature simply can’t help itself; which brings me round to the true beauty in Dewitt’s novel: it depicts the bare bones of humanity in all of their horror and glory.