Yet again last month the Manchester Book Club came up trumps with, if not the most gob smackingly fantastic book in the world, at least one that I wouldn’t have bothered to pick up otherwise and we all need to shrug off our bookish comfort blanket from time to time and try something brand new, especially with a hot, graphic front cover like this one <———————
The Sisters Brothers intrigued me first and foremost as a book that, although not my usual fare, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year. Since blogging I’ve found myself honing in a little more on the big literary prizes and, although I certainly don’t pressurise myself into reading them all, it does make a book all the more intriguing.
In an imagined west coast of the mid 19th century, Patrick deWitt places Eli and Charlie Sisters; professional killers hired by the elusive ‘Commodore’ to dispatch of prospector Herman Kermit Warm, for reasons that are not made immediately obvious. Set against the volatile backdrop of the California gold rush, I came away from book group feeling rather excited at the prospect of a cowboy tale with an edge.
As I explained to the group at our meet this week, the most telling sign of the conclusions I came to about this novel could be clearly seen from the fact that, by the end, I hadn’t bothered to mark any one of the 328 pages. (I have a habit of sticking little coloured tabs where I see anything that captures my imagination/a passage that I particularly love or even dislike) This indifference is a bit of a shame really, I always think it’s better to really hate something rather than feel completely indifferent about it, particularly with a book. A word I found myself using a lot was ‘flat’. Although a couple of people felt very differently and discovered something they absolutely adored (which is wonderful as, had it not been for the book group, they may not have picked it up otherwise) it seems my expectations were so high that perhaps very few authors could have lived up to them.
The deadly pursuit is narrated by Eli Sisters; relatively mild-mannered and someone who seems ill-suited to his role as a hired killer, in stark contrast to his insensitive, impulsive, cold-killing older brother. Eli longs for a quieter life and I felt sympathetic towards the brief, domestic portraits of the small towns they visit and the glimpses we see of an alternative lifestyle; i.e. the lives of the dentist or the shopkeepers they run into. However, this sympathy is short lived as we only glimpse inside the heads of our characters for a matter of pages before the narrative becomes flat and our brothers become dull. Although a lack of emotional response to events does suit the role of hired killers, I eventually found the almost complete lack of depth extremely frustrating. Eli is soft, Charlie is petulant, and they are both DULL. *Yawn*
This pattern of teasing the reader with glimpses of something interesting only to snatch it away continues throughout. Intriguing cameos that I’m sure carried heaps of underlying meaning along with them were barely revisited; i.e. a witch-type figure who traps Eli within her cabin and a random weeping man the brothers bump into on a couple of occasions on the road… but what do they represent!? What does it all mean?! The most sympathetic, meaningful characters actually turned out to be the animals. Eli’s horse Tub is a tragic character and it is through the killer’s genuine care and concern for his well being that we are drawn about as close to our narrator than we will probably ever get.
A victim of my own expectations, more disappointment lay with the lack of focus on the setting. Part of what I was looking forward to about this book was the backdrop of the California gold rush. Although I wasn’t expecting this to be the focus of the novel in any way, the two brothers pass through this exciting setting and it’s fascinating characters at breakneck speed and I came away with precious little to enlighten or intrigue me.
I feel like I’ve come across having a real downer on this book and I really don’t. It isn’t a bad novel per say; it is simply written, well designed and, as I mentioned before, some members of the book group clearly found something very genuine within its pages. I just came away with the feeling that there wasn’t enough of much really; hardly any characterisation, precious little plot and any focus solely on a couple of dullards who I really wasn’t too bothered about. I wanted excitement, I wanted energy but instead I got a degree of tedium that made The Sisters Brothers position on the Man Booker shortlist a bit of a shocker; really making me wonder whether it relies far too much on a well designed front cover/typeset and not enough on content.