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What I Read: The Sisters Brothers

December 20, 2011

i’ve never been a girl for labels. the only brand name i own is marc jacobs and that’s a pair of raggedy old black leather boots that i’ve worn the shit out of. (fun story – i fell over in chicago this past weekend and broke the boots. also, i was holding a bag of cheesecake at the time. and it was in front of a tour bus. crowning moment!) therefore, i care not a whit for a cover of a book that blares “MAN BOOKER PRIZE FINALIST SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE FINALIST ROGERS WRITERS’ TRUST FICTION PRIZE FINALIST!!!!!!” it’s funny, because i always forget that the giller is sponsered by scotiabank, so having that “scotiabank” thrown in there makes it seem even more like an advertisement. it’s so interesting how the publishing business really really pushes some books for sale, and then leaves others by the wayside. (i was having lunch yesterday with my friend who is a literary agent and this was a point of discussion. if you have time, check out carly’s website. does it sweeten the deal if i tell you that she used to play football with me? girl was an offensive lineman!!! she’s a tough cookie!!!). anyway, where was i? the cover art of the book is pretty cool, i must say. i have trouble with those gestalt exercises (do you see the two faces? do you see the vase?) but regardless – neat.

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i didn’t actually buy this book for myself. my father got it, and i usurped it before my mother could read it. i don’t usually care about the giller prize shortlist, because while i’m sure that the books are all good, or even great, i usually don’t want to fall victim to commercialization – i don’t want to pass over a lesser-known book that someone has told me that i will REALLY love for a shortlisted book that i might ONLY just like a little bit. book prizes are weird things. but the thing is, the names of the books get thrown around so much, and with this title being so distinctive, it really stuck in my head. and from this point onward, do not read, because there shalt be spoilers.

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the sisters brothers was good. it wasn’t great. keep in mind that i have a really specific type of writing that i like, but i was surprised that a book with such simple narration, and, to be honest, simple(ish) story would be so lauded. as soon as i started reading, i was immediately reminded of cormac mccarthy’s writing, but without the blisteringly good adjectives. TSB (as it now shall be referred to) covers the story of two assassin brothers – eli and charlie sisters – and there is where the title comes from. they are trekking across the states to murder someone. the year? honestly, i have no idea. 1800s. the time of the gold rush and the gold diggers.

whatever patrick dewitt does in this story, someone has done it before. that’s not necessarily a cruel statement, because everyone is deriving something from someone else – everything i have ever written has been written by someone else before me. it’s just what happens in the arts, the fine arts. this book felt like a mix of cormac mccarthy and ernest hemingway – neat and tight language, a potential for violence in the wild span of the 1800s united states. but wherever the language could have been maybe expanded upon in specific moments to impart more of the situation or more of a feeling, it was not. and wherever the violence might have been pushed a little farther in order to horrify with nuance, at the right moments, in order to create a scene that burned into the mind of the reader and never left, it was not. i’m not someone who wants to read the most violent books (though i am someone who eschews hemingway for faulker, so full disclosure, i’m biased in that regard) but there were moments where incandescence was possible, and yet it was never brought to that level. and that might have been on purpose, and it might have worked for other people, but for me, as a reader, i kept on biting at the bit, wanting something wild and feral to happen. and it never really did.

the toothbrushing. i was hoping that dewitt would pull the wires and bring it all into one fabulous knot at the end. eli, the narrator of the story (his brother, charlie, does not have a voice as eli does), brushes his teeth. which is an oddity for that day and age. it starts because he has an abscessed tooth, and a dentist gifts him with tooth powder and a toothbrush, and for the majority of the book eli takes immense pleasure in brushing his teeth. he even brushes his teeth alongside a woman that he wants to be intimate with, and it’s a charming scene. you can picture it perfectly. double foamed mouths. and i was hoping that something about that tooth powder was going to be strong and important at the end of the story. i do realise that it sets eli apart from his brother – whereas charlie is smelly, animalistic, crueler than his chubbier brother – eli takes pleasure in cleaning himself, in at least pretending to be kind and thoughtful. and the readers do get a hint at eli’s hidden rage, in a particular head-stomping scene, which was one of the scenes that did stick with me the most, but we never really learn why.

the gold. the theme of the gold was only brought in at the last third or quarter of the book. we know that eli and charlie are set to murder someone, but we do not know why, and it is only when they get to san francisco that we are told that the gold rush is so important. maybe i should have caught onto that before. maybe it didn’t happen for me because i am not american. i didn’t immediately assume that the gold rush would be so pertinent in that day and age. and when it turns out that the target (the man that the sisters brothers are to kill) has been targeted by their boss specifically for something related to gold, i didn’t feel connected to that at all – maybe because i had felt none of the gold mania leading up to that moment. the gold seemed an afterthought. money seemed important to the sisters brothers, but not raw gold specifically.

the intermissions. there are two intermissions that are literally set apart in the book with pages of illustrations book-ending them. in each of those intermissions, we are introduced to an unnamed little girl who first poisons a dog and then attempted to poison charlie. i get that. charlie is, at times, no better than a dog, but the intermissions seem so abrupt and so odd, separated as they are from the rest of the book with big, dark pages of curlicues and swirls. i’m not sure that i grasp why they were important. this could be my fault, entirely.

the diary entries. in which the sisters brothers discover that one of their associates has left the order of henchmen and has, instead, gone off with main target to harvest gold using a strange, magical alchemical solution. a diary is a crutch. it’s like playing a video game and entering a new room, and a message bubble popping up: “link, all of the people in the village are gone. maybe if you read this diary that has been left between the mattress and the sheets, you might learn of the tragedy that has happened here.” i did not, not, not like that part. dewitt is a subtle enough writer that he could have shown us the scene part by part, could have let us think that we had figured it out by ourselves as he showed us morris and warm (the former associate, and the target) harvesting their gold by the light of the moon. it would have been both a beautiful and triumphant scene for us readers. one of those scenes that makes you clap a hand to your mouth, reading on the subway.

and i can’t even start with the witch.

but i did love the way that the book was set out, aside from those intermissions. i love choppy little chapters that can sometimes only last a page, or even half a page. because that is how the human mind thinks. jerky and disjointed. i love a book that can take risks in formatting like that, and i really appreciated it. and the story is good. the writing is good. it’s not a bad book in any sense of the word, and i think that i am being especially hard on the story because it has been so incredibly lauded, and has been put up for so many prizes. who knows – if this book was unknown and just something that i had picked up on a shelf in a little independent bookstore somewhere, this review may have been much different. and maybe that is the negative aspect of being nominated for so many prizes as a writer – people will most certainly buy more of your books, but they go into reading them with much higher expectations.

anyway, do read it. dewitt was born in canada (YAHOOLIGANS!) but he lives in the usa now (not yahooligans). i don’t actually know if he identifies as “canadian” because in any of his bios, he never, ever refers to himself as “canadian”, which is a bit of bummer. but regardless, he’s from vancouver island originally, so get thee out there and support canadian writers! and you may like a book completely differently from how i do! because i give you full disclosure about my boner for adverbs, and apparently that love classifies me as a philistine of writing! (yeah okay whatever.)

and remember – i do NOT have a book published, so regardless of what i say in these reviews, i am always writing them from a space of immense respect for a writer having published something!

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