The Western is a genre that was abdicated from mainstream fiction in the 80s, as Science Fiction became the flavor of choice for many. Despite vast differences in how these genres manifest on screen and in print, both deal with themes concerning the inevitable downfall of mans’ quest for power – in its different forms. 

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick De Witt is authentically Western and any Eastwood, or Deadwood, enthusiast will immediately appreciate strong genre conventions. There are horses and whores, the landscape is barren, the mystical presence of Native American Indians is feared and there is an unfaltering thirst for gold.

There is a charm to this novel as there is a charm to Levis. They are without expiry. The Sisters Brothers nods to a type of text that seems to have faded in this technological age, but the characters are so brilliantly considered and the writing, balanced and on-point and so correct, that the text is unmistakably modern.

De Witt lacks the pretense of many novelists younger in their careers, who can be as interested in making a name for themselves, as they are about their novel having impact. In The Sisters Brothers, nothing is written that doesn’t need to be. This is a marked change from his first novel Absolutions, which whilst very clever in its narrative structure, lacked the depth and gentle crescendo of The Sisters Brothers. In my opinion.

And because the pace of the book is gentle, there is at times, room to be affected by dialogue. In this novel you are not just reading to get to the next predictable event, mindlessly flicking pages so some chaos can resolve as you imagined it would. De Witt’s imagery will encourage you to pause along the way and consider that, “You are afraid of hell. But that’s all religion is, really. Fear of a place we’d rather not be, and where there’s no such a thing as suicide to steal us away.” 

And balanced with this lullaby is a dry humour and a quirkiness and a charm, that you are consistently jollied along, laughing at characters who you will agree are “unusual, but that is perhaps the closest [you] could come to complimenting him.” 

Like other Westerns, this story examines who we become when we are driven by extrinsic reward, and as such has obvious and relatable messages. 

It makes sense for this type of message to be predominately communicated to us through an analysis of the future. Global warming, the GFC, KFC and self-cleaning public toilets are real examples of stuff, having occurred through the paradox of mans’ obsession to expand and streamline our existence. We are yet to fully learn the extent of our damaging ways and so we predict through Science Fiction. It makes sense. 

The Sisters Brothers takes a few steps back, and simply encourages us to be humble, to appreciate the fine things around us, and not to fuck up. It’s an uncomplicated portrayal of what is important in being satisfied, and the damage that can be caused, when you become blinded by greed. For those needing a reminder that it is the 21st Century, there is a twist – a potion, totally impossible, that ties The Sisters Brothers to our relationship with something that can’t exist, but maybe could. 

For everyone else it’s a Western and a superb representation of the genre and mastering the elements comprising any compelling story: a rivalry, a journey, enemies, tragedy, a chase, a bit of sex and strong characters with a clear objective. 

In a nutshell the story follows two brothers on a hunt for gold. Saying any more will spoil anything you will enjoy reading on your own. It is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read.

The Sisters Brothers

by Patrick DeWitt
(Ecco Press)

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