This year, for reasons not entirely clear even to myself, I’ve decided to read and review (well, react to) the six books shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize (in order of what we have the most stock of). I read a varied lot of books, from Maggie O’Farrell to J. R. Ward to China Miéville to Louise Penny. I’m coming into the shortlisted books entirely blind – as in, I’ve not read any of these authors before, and I don’t know anything about the books either (not even what it says on the back!). I like to think that this means I have a completely fresh take on all of them.
Publisher’s book description:
Oregon, 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters, notorious professional killers, are on their way to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. On the way, the brothers have a series of unsettling and violent experiences in the Darwinian landscape of Gold Rush America. Charlie makes money and kills anyone who stands in his way; Eli doubts his vocation and falls in love. And they bicker a lot. Then they get to California, and discover that Warm is an inventor who has come up with a magical formula, which could make all of them very rich. What happens next is utterly gripping, strange and sad. Told in deWitt’s darkly comic and arresting style, The Sisters Brothers is the kind of Western the Coen Brothers might write – stark, unsettling and with a keen eye for the perversity of human motivation. Like his debut novel Ablutions, The Sisters Brothers is a novel about the things you tell yourself in order to be able to continue to live the life you find yourself in, and what happens when those stories no longer work. It is an inventive and strange and beautifully controlled piece of fiction, which shows an exciting expansion of DeWitt’s range.
This must be the most deadpan novel I have ever read.
Told from the perspective of younger brother Eli Sisters, a rather kind-hearted, soft-bellied man despite forming half of a notorious killing squad, it feels like he and his brother Charlie are marionets, woodenly walking through 1850s Oregon and Gold Rush-mad California and having things happen to them rather than taking destiny firmly into their own hands. Not that this is detrimental to the story; I really rather enjoyed their wooden speech and slow-forming thoughts. I was retelling parts of the story to someone, and found myself giggling (which I wasn’t doing as I was reading the book). Plotwise, basically, the Sisters brothers are told by their boss, the Commodore, to find and kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm, and they travel from Oregon to California in search of him. Things don’t go entirely as planned.
I liked this book. I found its writing style interesting, and Charlie and Eli (and Hermann) become lifelike enough to start to care for. Eli is obviously not right for the job of killing people, but does it capably anyway (…). His thoughts and decisions take a while to form while Charlie takes the lead in the search, but Eli is made of tougher stuff than he realizes, and once he decides on something, he will follow his decision through to the end. It’s really the story of coming into your own, discovering what it is you are meant to do and be. I don’t know enough of the Wild West to say if it gives an impression in line with history, but I certainly felt the dust and the slowing down of time, and the strange types drawn to California in search of gold felt entirely believable, too. The one mistake I made was reading the word “miniature dragon” where I should have read “miniature dragoon” at the very beginning of the story, and it took me half the book to realize this was a regular Western, and not Cowboys & Aliens. ^^
This is Patrick DeWitt’s second novel (after Ablutions), and I found it interesting and odd. Four more to go, so I don’t know how it will hold up, but despite its stand-offish manner, or maybe because of it, I preferred this one over Julian Barnes.
Next up: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman.